Primus Inter Pares

“I’m asking for your resignation. I am the Prime Minister. I name my ministers. I’m demanding your resignation. I have the right to do so.”- Lester Pearson, prime minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Dupuis, cabinet minister

Canadian prime ministers have always had the unilateral authority to select a cabinet ‘team’; to hire and fire ministers; to shuffle cabinet at will; to appoint senators, Supreme Court judges, deputy ministers and exempt staff. However, despite the seemingly divine authority that prime ministers possess, the history books tell us that they did not become full-blown autocrats until the late 1960s. It is, therefore, not the rules of the game that have changed in the past half century. Those have remained the same since Confederation. Instead, after spending the better part of six months researching prime ministerial power in Canada, I have come to the melancholy realization that it is not the rules that are the problem; rather, it is how the game is being played that must change. I use the word melancholy instead of gloomy, bleak, hopeless, or painful because in the game of politics it is much easier to change the way the players interact with the rules than the fundamental underpinnings of the game itself.

Canada has witnessed grotesque perversions of prime ministerial power throughout history: the Pacific Scandal, the King-Byng Affair, the Sponsorship Scandal, and the Harper prorogation, to name a few. However, it is my contention that cabinet ministers have been the lesser-known, but equally damaged victims of prime ministerial despotism, especially since the 1960s – which is a problem for Canadian democracy. A BIG PROBLEM. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? After all, cabinet is an appointed body; all of its deliberations take place in secret; and most of its documents are sealed for decades before the public can access them. So why is it such a big deal if cabinet ministers’ power has been usurped by the prime minister?

Well, the short answer is that the cabinet represents the last check on prime ministerial authority that Canadians have. That is, because all laws and policies originate from cabinet, it is imperative that cabinet ministers are in a position to meaningfully challenge the prime minister on governmental objectives. If ministers simply rubber-stamp every initiative that the prime minister and his lackeys (or as Donald Savoie calls them, “courtiers”) in the PMO bring to the cabinet table then a government of many quickly turns into a government of one. Unfortunately, just that has happened. If you want to know more about how the prime minister has consolidated power over cabinet ministers, feel free to read my thesis in a month or two. For now, however, you will have to take my word that the prime minister is no longer primus inter pares (or ‘first among equals’) in cabinet. Instead, he is simply primus: a king, “le boss”, god.

As such, it seems like now is a great time to rethink how we ought to go about playing politics in Canada. Luckily, the following piece sets out to do just that. Below you will find one modest proposal for reforming prime ministerial despotism over cabinet ministers in Canada. It is a little half-baked, but that is the point. I want to know what you think. Enjoy!

On Dec. 3, 2013 Conservative MP, Michael Chong introduced bill C-559 to the House of Commons. The Private Member’s Bill entitled: “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms)” (otherwise known as “the Reform Act”) sought to empower both cabinet ministers and MPs vis-à-vis the prime minister. In Chong’s own words:

“[The Reform Act] is a bill that would strengthen the principle on which our democratic institutions in Canada were founded, that being the principle of responsible government… It would restore and strengthen the concept of confidence in House of Commons parliamentary party caucuses and would reinforce the caucus as a decision-making body.”

Section 6 of the Reform Act is important to note. It provides that:

“(i) a leadership review may be initiated by the submission of a written notice to the caucus chair signed by at least 15% of the members of the party’s caucus, (ii) a leadership review is to be conducted by secret ballot, with the result to be determined by a majority vote of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus, and, (iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

In plain language, s.6 of the Act gives the parliamentary caucus the power to remove a party leader, even if that leader is a sitting prime minister. This provision represents a palpable departure from the belief that “what the parliamentary group did not create, it may not destroy, at least without ratification by the party ‘grass roots’.”, as Mackenzie King put it. Indeed, if the Reform Act were ratified by all parties it would be, as Chong says, a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reclaim… influence in caucus and, by extension, Parliament.” Unfortunately, the Conservatives have been the only party to ratify s.6 of the Act thus far.

The reason why the Reform Act is important to note is because it represents a shift in the way that Canadians are thinking about executive power. However, despite the progressive nature of the Reform Act, I argue that a truly “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to empower parliamentarians will also take the political executive into account.  Therefore, I seek to take s.6 of the Reform Act several steps further.

Despite the fact that there are countless other reforms that could empower cabinet ministers vis-à-vis the prime minister, it is evident that palpable changes to the status quo are most likely to come about if they are done at the institutional level. Extraneous factors such as the media and the rise of executive federalism, for example, have taken on a path-dependent logic that makes them very difficult to reform without paradigmatic shifts. In the case of the media, it is unlikely that news outlets are capable of shifting away from the 24-Hour news cycle or “de-celebratizing” prime ministers unless societal attitudes towards media consumption shift enormously. Similarly, because executive federalism is an outcome of highly complex governing in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is difficult to reimagine a change in intergovernmental decision-making that would still allow for inter-jurisdictional programs to be negotiated and administered in a more efficient manner. This is not to say that the latter is impossible, but rather that it is unlikely given the inherent interdependence between the federal and provincial governments today.  Consequently, I am putting forward one recommendation that will directly empower cabinet ministers vis-à-vis the prime minister at the institutional level.

It is argued here that the following reform address the roots of ministerial disempowerment in Canada’s parliamentary system. That is, this reform will meaningfully change the status quo without changing the nature of extra-parliamentary institutions such as the media or executive federalism and without undermining the fundamental logic of responsible government. In fact, if this recommendation is adopted it is likely that Canadian democracy as a whole will function better because cabinet ministers will be empowered to play a more constructive role in all political institutions.

Recommendation:  All cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are to be selected by the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective party before a general election has taken place. Moreover, all cabinet ministers, including the sitting prime minister, are to be subject to ‘leadership’ reviews by members of the parliamentary caucus.

Canadian prime ministers (and all party leaders, for that matter) have been selected by delegates from both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective parties since 1919. The aforementioned method of leadership selection has ostensibly democratized the process by which a sitting prime minister comes into power. However, an unintended consequence of the democratization of party leadership selection is that it has put sitting prime ministers in what Savoie calls “unassailable” positions of power. As a consequence of their increased popular legitimacy –  which should not be conflated with democratic legitimacy –, Canadian prime ministers have dominated cabinet to an unprecedented degree compared to other Anglo-Celtic Westminster parliamentary democracies . Therefore, one is left to draw the conclusion that if Canadian prime ministers are to be primus inter pares in cabinet, that all other ministers of the Crown should enjoy the same amount of popular legitimacy as the first minister. In other words, if the prime minister has the ability to dominate cabinet decision making because she enjoys the popular support of the extra-parliamentary party, then perhaps the best way to restore a balance of power is to elevate all other ministers to the prime minister’s level.

Furthermore, as it stands, the Reform Act empowers sitting MPs to initiate leadership reviews and select an interim leader until the entire party can select a new leader. It is recommended here that – in order to completely remove the appointment of cabinet ministers from the prime minister’s powers – the leadership review mechanism outlined in the reform Act be extended to all cabinet ministers. These reviews would ensure that it is the caucus that decides whether or not a cabinet minister should remain in her or his portfolio, as opposed to the prime minister.

It is worth outlining the specifics of the proposed reform in brief. Once again, it is recommended here that cabinet is selected by party membership before a general election has been held. It would ultimately be up to the party to develop specific voting procedures and policies pursuant to the selection of cabinet. For instance, as discussed below, some pan-Canadian parties might decide to build regional representation into cabinet selection by placing regional quotas and caps on the amount of members who can run for a given position in cabinet. However, there are two requirements that all parties would have to adhere to in order for this reform to bring about meaningful change. The first is that only sitting MPs are eligible to run for positions in cabinet. The merits of having experienced MPs in cabinet are discussed in full below. The other requirement is that sitting MPs initiate leadership reviews – not members of the extra-parliamentary wing. The latter requirement will ensure that elected officials hold the balance of power in determining the performance of cabinet while still empowering all party members to take part in the selection of new ministers.

The timing of when cabinet is selected obviously carries virtues and vices. If cabinets are selected by parties before a general election, it is not unreasonable to maintain that cabinet minister elects will capitalize on the electoral security of winning their respective ridings. In the event that a cabinet minister ‘wins’ a portfolio, but goes on to lose her or his riding, however, an all-party election would be called to replace said minister after a general election – which could be a logistical drawback. On the positive side, if cabinet is selected by parties prior to elections, it is likely that campaigns would be less leader-driven and more focused on which cabinet – as opposed to simply which prime minister – is best suited to govern. However, the latter option is more feasible for opposition parties than for parties in government. This is because incumbent parties would already have a cabinet in place heading into an election and would thus be incentivized to re-elect their existing cabinet. Conversely, if a cabinet-wide review is undertaken prior to the dissolution of government it is entirely feasible for incumbent parties to put forward a new cabinet ‘team’ at the outset of the campaign period. What is important, in any case, is that the Canadian public knows not only who their prime minister could be when they go to the polls, but also who their entire government might be.

It should be noted that a less extreme solution to the problem of prime ministerial dominance in cabinet is for the political executive to be selected by all sitting MPs in the House of Commons, as is the case with the Consensus Government model used in Nunavut and the North-West Territories. Under Consensus Government, the first minister and cabinet are chosen by all MLA’s by way of a secret ballot after a general election has been held. Consequently, according to Graham White, “ministers are beholden to MLAs rather than premieres for their cabinet posts.” Despite the fact that this reform is progressive and well-suited to parliamentary governance, I argue that political culture inhibits it from being realistically implemented at the federal level. That is, because leadership conventions have become the norm in federal politics, it is much more feasible to work within the bounds of the existing framework than eliminate it all together.

The positive consequences of adopting this reform are four fold. Firstly, the prime minister (and a handful of his unelected senior advisers) would no longer have the power to unilaterally appoint cabinet ministers behind closed doors. Instead, all cabinet ministers would be appointed by the governor general on advice from the governing party as a whole. Because the governor general is still responsible for appointing cabinet – which is, after all, no more than a committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council –, this recommendation fits well within Canada’s existing constitutional order.

It also logically follows that cabinet ministers would no longer serve at the pleasure of the prime minister under this proposed reform. Rather, because all ministers serve at the pleasure of their party, it is reasonable to assert that they would be in a better position to challenge the prime minister without fear of being removed from cabinet. By the same token, this recommendation also delegitimizes the prime minister’s ability to shuffle cabinet at will. According to White, frequent cabinet shuffles are a “defining feature of the modern-day Canadian cabinet.” In fact, White notes that Canadian prime ministers (and provincial premiers) shuffle their cabinets more than in any other Westminster system. The reasons for doing so: “to reward solid performers and remove political deadwood; to give the appearance of freshness and progress… and to alter the political composition or outlook of cabinet.” It is my position, however, that in a democracy one minister should not have the power to determine the composition or direction of government; to decide who is performing well and who is falling behind. That is the job of a king, not a prime minister. Instead, the caucus should be able to decide.

Not only do frequent cabinet shuffles undermine ministerial authority within their respective departments (an ‘involved’ minister will only know 20% her departmental on goings), but they also diminish a ministers’ ability to meaningfully advocate for departmental needs within cabinet. Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull highlight the amount of power that comes with having the ability to shuffle cabinet at will: “[one cannot overemphasize the degree to which  Canadian prime ministers have been able to use “Cabinet shuffles,” entailing some mix of promotions, demotions, lateral transfers, and dismissals, to keep ministers in line with the prime minister’s agenda.” On the latter, cabinet ministers are serving on their portfolios less time than ever before, which indicates that ministers are becoming increasingly disposable. Frequent cabinet shuffles also have negative implications for the overall collegiality of cabinet, as well as the functioning of line-departments. Therefore, if the prime minister no longer enjoys the power – or at least perceived legitimacy – to shuffle cabinets, it can be said that ministers will enjoy a higher degree of authority both within their departments and cabinet.

Secondly, it is likely that the proposed reform would limit the size of cabinet to a reasonable number of ministers – which would in turn improve the overall collegiality of cabinet. This is because it would be logistically difficult to select more than a couple dozen ministers in a single convention. What is more likely is that parties will opt to standardize the size of cabinets or periodically decide how many ministers would be required to carry out their platform. It should be noted that Canadian federal cabinets have grown enormously since Confederation. In fact, while cabinet was originally comprised of 13 ministers under Macdonald, by 1907 the average federal cabinet contained 15 ministers. The size of cabinet steadily grew throughout the 20th century and hit its apex under Mulroney, whose cabinet contained 40 ministers in the late 1980s. The size of cabinet fell back into the 30s under Chretien and Martin, but then rebounded to 40 ministers in 2015 under Harper. Currently, the Liberal cabinet sits at 31 ministers – all of whom, despite their age, gender, or ethnicity, are nonetheless beholden to Mr. Trudeau for their portfolios. While the literature suggests that the size of cabinet does not directly correlate to the level of decentralization within it, one thing is certain: the ability to appoint ministers gives the prime minister some of the most valuable ‘carrots’ that any politician could dream of possessing. Consequently, by removing these ‘carrots’ (i.e., the power to reward loyal partisans with cabinet portfolios), the prime minister is significantly weaker.

Furthermore, positive partisanship still remains intact under the proposed recommendation. That is, by opening the convention process up to all cabinet ministers, it is likely that political parties will experience more participation simply by virtue of the fact that the extra-parliamentary wing has the power to select more than just the party leader. Moreover, such a shift has the potential to, once again, restore the regional minister model within cabinet. Under the proposed recommendation, regional footholds within parties could secure support from delegates in their regions and subsequently ‘win’ a spot in cabinet on the promise of advocating for local interests. Parties can even go so far as to set quotas for the amount of ministers they want in cabinet from each region, if they so choose. Quotas and caps can also be made for sociological factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, etc.

Finally, the recommendation that all ministers be selected in the same way as the prime minster has the potential to prevent the harm of experienced prime ministers taking advantage of inexperienced ministers’ naivety.  One of the most formidable powers that a prime minister has over cabinet stems from the fact that ministers are relatively inexperienced legislators, and therefore are less able to take advantage of cabinet procedures. Interestingly enough, according to Matthew Kerby,

“14 per cent of all cabinet appointments made between 1949 and 1990 went to parliamentarians who possessed fewer than two years’ total experience in the House of Commons. Compare this figure with the United Kingdom where ministers who served between 1945 and 1984 ‘had an average of 12.2 years of parliamentary experience before becoming ministers, and fewer than 10 per cent of ministers were appointed with less than five years’ experience’”

The fact that the current Liberal cabinet contains 18 (out of 31) rookie MPs reaffirms the trend that Kerby highlights.

As White argues, “it is unhealthy for Canadian democracy for so many ministers to attain office without experiencing life as a private member.” That is, in order for a minister to effectively head a department and meaningfully partake in cabinet debates, it is imperative that said minister has either sufficient experience as a legislator or formidable clout within the governing party. Both of these conditions safeguard ministers from becoming docile carriers of rubber stamps for the prime minister. As such, one of the best ways to ensure that cabinet ministers have experienced “life as a private member” is to make their appointment contingent on being re-elected to the House of Commons. The selection of cabinet by party membership incentivizes those MPs who have proven their worth in their ridings, in caucus, and in their party, for that matter, to rise to the top, should their party win a government mandate. In the case of the latter, it is reasonable to attest that those ministers who ‘win’ cabinet positions are sufficiently well-versed in governing or, at the very least, have the confidence of their party. Therefore, it is my belief that if ministers are selected in the same way as the prime minister, the harms associated with inexperienced ministers in cabinet will be mitigated.

Regardless of the positive consequences associated with reforming cabinet selection processes, it is important to analyze the negative implications of such a reform. Such analysis will serve to reinforce the notion that, on a balance, the positive attributes of reforming cabinet selection processes outweigh the negatives.

Firstly, many students of Canadian government and politics have noted that powerful prime ministers are an inherent feature of Westminster parliamentary systems. In fact, W.A. Matheson writes, “[b]ecause of [the prime minister’s] key role as builder and master of the cabinet and as leader of the majority party, the Prime Minister’s position is preeminent… he brings together the political leaders of the various subcultures and keeps them together, he is the one person who becomes a truly national [] figure.” Moreover, in the words of the current federal government: “The Prime Minister decides on the organization, procedures and composition of the Cabinet. This includes establishing Cabinet committees, selecting their membership and convening the Cabinet itself. In practical terms, the Prime Minister forms a team, decides on the process for collective decision making, and builds and adapts the machinery of government in which the team will operate.”

Thus, given the prime minister’s preeminent role in determining the overall direction of cabinet, one can certainly hold that an attempt to weaken the role of a prime minister would inhibit him from being, in the words of White, “sufficiently autocratic”.

Under the proposed reform, the prime minister’s ability to be autocratic would be significantly weakened. However, this is not to say that just because cabinet ministers are selected in the same way as the prime minister that all ministers would enjoy the same powers over cabinet organization. Indeed, the recommendation that all cabinet ministers are selected by party membership seeks to empower these ministers within their existing departmental and deliberative roles; not suggest that cabinet move forward without a leader. It is the notion that the leader of cabinet, conversely, ought to be primus inter pares and opposed to simply primus that my recommendation seeks to address.

In practical terms, a first among equals would possess the responsibility to ensure that cabinet (and all of its committees, for that matter) is a coherent, deliberative and collective decision-making body. Granted, such a responsibility might entail keeping cabinet in line with agreed-upon legal and policy initiatives – but it certainly ought not to permit the prime minister to form her or his cabinet ‘team’, decide when a consensus has been reached, fire ministers for non-compliance, shuffle cabinet at will, or circumvent cabinet on major policy decisions. In the latter set of actions, the prime minister is no longer “sufficiently autocratic”; instead, he is – as Savoie puts it – a king.

Opponents of the recommendation that all cabinet ministers are to be selected by their party might also argue that such a reform would have disastrous consequences for the representational imperative. Once again, the representational imperative is, as William Cross puts it, the “political principle that insists that, so far as possible, cabinet include “representatives” of all regions as well as all important ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups and various other politically salient groups (such as women and those who hold certain occupations).” The representational imperative is ostensibly intended to ensure that all provinces and “politically salient groups” have the ability to bring their concerns to cabinet deliberations. After all in a highly diverse country such as Canada, one would reasonably expect that its most important decision-making body represents the country’s distinct geographic, social, cultural, and linguistic characteristics. Others, like Matheson, have argued that the representational imperative has meant that “every cabinet must contain at least a few dullards or nonentities to represent some important interest”.

Criticisms aside, the consequence of removing cabinet selection from the hands of the prime minister is that new selection processes no longer guarantee equitable representation within cabinet. For instance, if a party is able to secure a majority government without electing many seats in Quebec (as was the case in 2011 with the Conservatives), it is entirely likely that no ministers from that region will ‘win’ a position in cabinet. Such a scenario would certainly have disastrous consequences for national unity. It is, thus, for the reason that the representational imperative is important to Canadians that I recommend parties build regional and sociological representation into their cabinet selection processes. For example, parties that are dedicated to making Canadian cabinets ‘look like Canada’ (as is the case with the current Liberal government) can devise a system of quotas and caps that dictate who can run for a given cabinet position. Such a system would ensure that the representational imperative is respected and that cabinet selection is placed in the hands of the many instead of the prime minister alone.

Negative consequences aside, it is fairly evident that, on a balance, it would be healthier for Canadian democracy if the entire cabinet – as opposed to simply the first minister – were to be selected by the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective party. Despite the fact that the proposed reform does not address prime ministerial power in the media or in the intergovernmental arena directly, it has been argued here that the above reforms will shift the political atmosphere in a way that incentivizes extra-parliamentary political institutions to refocus their efforts on entire governments instead of the prime minister alone. Moreover, the above recommendation will drastically diminish the power of the prime minister in cabinet vis-à-vis other ministers. That is, if cabinet ministers are no longer appointed by the prime minister, but rather by their party, it is reasonable to attest that they will no longer feel beholden to the prime minister for their cabinet position. By the same token, this reform will delegitimize the prime ministers who shuffle cabinet at will or fire ministers without reasonable cause. After all, under the proposed reform, it is the caucus who decides whether or not a cabinet minister is fit to continue in her portfolio – not the primus.

One thing is obvious: there has never been a golden age of Canadian democracy. Prime ministers have always been autocratic – even the ones who are able to woo the public with snappy one-liners and flashy public relations schemes. However, after nearly 150 years of despotic prime ministerial behaviour, I believe that it is time for Canadians to reimagine how power ought to be disbursed in the country’s most important decision-making body. After all, if it is, in fact, 2016, then maybe a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet is not enough. If it is 2016, then maybe we should not allow cabinet to be appointed in the same way that it was in 1867. If it is 2016, then maybe we should look past political rhetoric that seeks to appease the lowest common denominator and pressure those in power to make ‘Real Change’ in Ottawa. In that regard, perhaps it is not that Canada has lost its way; instead, could it be that it has simply yet to find it?







Entry #40 – Friday August 21st, 2015 – “Obee’re Bulungi. Goodbye.”

I’ve always hated Sundays. Ever since I was a young child the anticipation of the coming week about to begin, combined with the anxiety of said week’s challenges always made me feel a bit restless. Tonight is no exception. I am about to begin yet another adventure – a big, big, slightly scary, big, adventure. In late March I – along with four other incredibly talented and intelligent students – was selected as one of Dalhousie University’s first Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Scholars. Fancy title; my Mom is pretty proud…

As I look towards the new adventures that inevitably lie ahead (writing an honours thesis, applying to laws schools and grad schools, and living in Halifax for one more year) I cannot help but reflect on the adventure I embarked on only a few short months ago.

It feels like just yesterday that I stood on my front porch in Halifax, waiting for Rachel and her mother to pick me up and take me to the airport. The previous day was, bar none, the best day of my life. The Rideau Hall Foundation and other supporters of the QES program flew me to Ottawa to attend a dinner hosted by Canada’s Governor General, David Johnston and my political hero, Jean Chretien. I had some time to kill before the dinner so, like any good nerd, I decided to spend the day watching Question Period in the House of Commons gallery. In the evening, I wined and dined with some of Canada’s most influential and well-respected people. I remember thinking two things to myself after I gave a short thank you speech to His Excellency, Mr. Chretien and the other attendees of the dinner: (1) No matter what happens in Uganda, I can die happy; and (2) Rideau Hall has not seen the last of me. I will be back.

A strange feeling came across me as I waited on my front porch. I knew that I was in for something huge, something potentially life changing; however, I also well aware of the fact that I had no idea what I was in for. Uganda was still a figment of my imagination at that point. It was a place that I read about, saw on a map, or watched in the news, but it was not real… yet.

Oddly enough, Uganda did not become real until I had already been here for a couple of days. In one of her blog entries, Rachel calls the weird phenomena that I experienced in my first few days of travel “soul delay”. Soul delay simply means that you mind has not caught up with the physical space in which your body finds itself. Fortunately, after my soul caught up with my body and I settled into a routine, Uganda quickly started to gain appeal. The nature of my work was endlessly interesting, once unfamiliar faces eventually morphed into the faces of close friends and colleagues, and daily swim practices provided a much-needed source of familiarity.

The first half of my adventure was a blur. My brain was working overtime to reconcile the seemingly constant state of cognitive disequilibrium that I found myself in. From the food I ate to the smell of the air, almost everything that I came in contact with was new and unfamiliar. To make matters worse, it was nearly impossible to wrap my head around the fact that my surroundings would characterize my reality for the next 15 weeks. Of course some aspects of Ugandan life were initially charming. I was immediately astonished by how friendly everyone was. The heavy food, boda bodas, and constant noise, on the other hand, took some getting used to.

In these first six or seven weeks, the only buffer between the familiar and the strange was Rachel and Shelby. The three of us constantly relied on each other to minimize the effects of cognitive dissonance, homesickness, and bouts of frustration. Interestingly enough, as time passed, the familiar became strange and the strange became familiar to the three of us. Our discussions eventually shifted from “man, some aspects of Uganda are weird” to “man, some aspects of Canada are weird”. Even though the nature of our conversations was dynamic, the support system that Rachel and Shelby gave me over the past few months has been steadfast – and for that I will always be grateful.


The “Seals Invitational Gala” swim meet marked my half way point in Uganda. Seven and a half weeks down, seven and a half to go. The meet was an important part of my time in Uganda for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it allowed me to share my love of swimming with people from all over East Africa. Gold medals and national records aside, the most enjoyable part of the swim meet was the time I spent out of the water, talking to swimmers, coaches, parents, and heads of state. Secondly, the meet was important because I felt like I belonged to a community for the first time since my arrival in Uganda. Every time I walked on the pool deck I was greeted with a warm hello from nearly everybody in the surrounding area. My coaches and fellow swimmers no longer saw me as a novelty, but rather as a peer and a friend. People even started to understand my sense of humor – not an easy feat. In short, the swim meet not only gave me a sense of purpose in an unfamiliar place, it also gave me a sense of belonging. And let me tell you, there is no better feeling than that.

The latter six weeks of my adventure were far less blurry and, frankly, much more enjoyable. I found it easier to open up to my friends and colleagues as I grew more comfortable with the rhythm of life in Uganda. Faces at meetings were no longer unfamiliar, names were no longer hard to remember, and matooke was even starting to gain some appeal. Two trips to Eastern Uganda (one to Soroti and one to a Kwanjula) solidified what was quickly becoming a deep admiration for almost every aspect of life in Uganda. These trips allowed me to appreciate the inexplicable beauty of Uganda: both geographically and culturally.

After the two trips out East, my fellow Scholars and I decided to venture south of the Equator. Our week in Rwanda remained an undisputed highlight of our time here. Rwanda was a particularly enjoyable experience for me because of the diversity of experiences that were packed into a few short days. The airport fiasco(s), for instance, tested the strength of my relationship with Rachel and Shelby… as well as my sanity. Fortunately, all relationships remained intact, although the latter might still need some time to recover. Additionally, museum visits, music festivals, cocktail parties, brunches, and afternoons spent at the lake presented me with a much needed break from life in Kampala.

I got in a little rut after I returned from Rwanda. Life in Kampala was still great, but nothing could beat a mini-summer vacation in one of the world’s most interesting countries. Thankfully, the rut was short lived. After a few days of weakness, my Scholars and I pulled up our boots and approached the last few weeks of our internships with vigor and gusto. Okay, maybe just vigor. The last few weeks of my experience in Uganda were particularly interesting on the work front. Rachel and I were assigned a number of fascinating tasks and were given a little bit more responsibility in the process. Under the helpful guidance of our colleagues, we were able to complete all of our assignments and learn a great deal about the state of Ugandan food security in the process.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how I feel in this moment. I suppose melancholy is the best word to describe my attitude towards leaving Uganda. On one hand, I could not be more excited to go home. Rather, I should say home(s). My first home is in Winnipeg; it will always be home no matter where I go. As I write this post, I am constantly distracted by the thought of sitting on the deck at my family cottage, eating a bowl of chips and dip after a relaxing day on the beach. My day dream then carries me back to my family home in Winnipeg where my mother is making homemade pizza while my father and I get into a heated discussion that will inevitably annoy my mother. My brother and I later go out for an evening of antics while my parents stay up and worry. Classic.

My second home is in Halifax. My daydreams about university life are slightly less “Somewhere That’s Green” and a little bit more “Tom Green”. I find myself constantly reminiscing about evenings spent at the “Nuthouse”, long swim practices, even longer swimming parties, and the countless days spent studying in the single best place on earth – my room.

On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that I am ready to leave Uganda. If my friends and family were here, it is likely that I would stay forever. Uganda’s sheer beauty could keep me here for years on end. Like I said, it is the Garden of Eden. But even if I were blind I would still want to stay in Uganda. The people who I have met over the past three months are some of the kindest and most caring souls on the planet. Colleagues, teammates, and random acquaintances welcomed me in as one of their own from the second I set foot in this country – and for that I will always be thankful. Those who say that Canadians are friendly the friendliest people in the world have clearly never been to Uganda.

It breaks my heart that I will have to say good bye to my friends and colleagues in a few short hours. Although I plan to be back at some point, I am deeply saddened by the reality that things will never be the same. Never again will I walk into the office and hear “Wasuze otya, Jerimiah?!” At lunchtime, I will no longer be able to have cross-cultural debates with my colleagues or see how much rice I can eat before passing out. I will not get to watch the sunset every evening during swim practice or do another hard set with my Ugandan teammates. Even more upsetting, the delicious break teas at the Hotel Africana are a thing of the past. No more samosas, African Tea, days spent at the office, or hours spent at the pool. And do not even get me started on the weather. Let’s just say that I will miss the warm Ugandan sun every single second that it dips below 20 degrees when I am back in Canada.

Over time, I have come to love the nuances of life in Kampala: the exchange I have every morning with a local shopkeeper (and her cute baby); the constant flow of boda bodas that speed towards me and say, “YES! We go?!”; the feeling of triumph I get after stomaching enough carbs to kill a small cat; the surprised look people give me when I greet them in Luganda; the constant flow of “Hello Je-re-my” that meets me at the pool; the taste of a greasy Rolex after a long day. Heck, I have even come to enjoy being called a “muzungu” the odd passerby.

All of these things I will dearly miss: friends, colleagues, teammates, weather, Rolexes. However, there are two other elements of Ugandan life that will make my departure especially difficult to stomach: Rachel and Shelby. These two girls have been my rock over the past few months. When I was sad, they picked me up; when I was angry, they shared in my anger; and when I was happy, they only raised me higher. In an earlier blog entry I said that my time in Uganda would have only been a third as good had it not been for Rachel and Shelby. But upon further reflection I think my statement is in need of revision. In hindsight, I realize that my time in Uganda would not be anything without them.


The three of us have been attached at the hip since day one. Hundreds of smoothies, eggs, batches of fudge, movie nights, and dead rats later, I can honestly say that I would not have had it any other way. Sure, at times we might have gotten a little tired of each other, but at no point did I regret having these two girls by my side. I especially did not regret their presence last night, when we ate an entire box of ice cream to celebrate Shelby’s birthday. Yes, we pigged out in public, and yes people stared – but holy shit was it ever worth it. My parents never gave me a sister, however, if they did, I can imagine that she would be just like Rachel and Shelby.

It is difficult to assess what kind of impact my time in Uganda has had on me. I know that when I get home I will be ambushed with the classic, “How was Africa? Did it steal your heart? Did it change your life?” If you ask me this question, please know that the well-rehearsed, 30 second response that I will give you is not a true reflection of my time here. The fact of the matter is that I do not know how Africa was, I do not know if it “stole my heart”, and I certainly do not know if Uganda has changed my life. If you want an honest answer to these questions, ask me in 10 years’ time. By then I should know whether or not Africa has “changed” me.

I cannot say whether or not my time away has changed me, but I can say that it has shaped me. My short time in Uganda has definitely provided me with much needed perspective, practical experience in a field that I am interested in, and a new approach to the way I interact with others. My mind is sufficiently broadened and my wallet is sufficiently empty. However, at the end of the day I am still Jeremy. I am still an impatient, type “A”, worker bee who finds comfort in getting things done early.

Uganda has not changed my personality. If anything, it has entrenched it. Even still, that does not mean that Uganda has not shaped the way I operationalize my personality. For instance, I am much better at not letting my impatience get the best of me. Okay, maybe not much better. Even still, I have learned that sometimes my best option in a given situation is to take my hands off the wheel and see how things play out – even if it drives me crazy to do so. In that regard, it is difficult to say if Uganda has fundamentally changed me. I am, however, confident that the lessons I have learned here have shaped the way I act on certain aspects of my personality.

Finally, after reading my countless rants on the pitfalls and potentials of development work, a lot of you might be wondering if my perspective has shifted on where I see myself in the world of development. In my first blog entry, I said that I saw myself as a ‘learner’. Indeed, I still agree with my earlier assessment of my place in the world of development. That said, my time here has been characterized by two other acts besides learning: understanding and doing.

A book I recently read said that places in the so called “developing world” need understanding from the “developed world” far more than they need foreign aid, official development assistance, or a rich philanthropist. I have come to agree with the author of this book after spending some time in Uganda. A lot of the world’s problems would be solved if we all pulled our heads out of our asses and tried to understand (as opposed to undermine) people from unfamiliar places. And no, CNN, World Vision infomercials, and We Day are not valid basses of understanding in case anyone is wondering. I am not saying that I completely understand Uganda. Nevertheless, after a couple of months I feel that I have begun to scratch the surface.

More, the world of development would be a very unproductive place without ‘doers’. I have already gone on several rants about my opinion on the best practices for ‘doing’, so I will spare you. What I will say is that my time here has allowed me to ‘do’ development in an ethical and productive manner. Therefore, in light of my time here it is safe to say that I fit in the world of development as a ‘learner’, ‘understander’, and occasional ‘doer’.

Well, it looks like we have nearly reached the end of the road. I would like to take a moment to thank everybody who supported me through my adventure. Firstly, QES… thanks for the scholarship. You guys rock, don’t ever change. Next, I would like to thank everybody who stayed in contact with me over the past few months. Your emails, facebook messages, comments, and other communications made me feel close to home in a faraway land. Moreover, I would like to thank my Ugandan colleagues, teammates, and friends for their steadfast support and kindness. Not only have you made Uganda a place that I will miss dearly, you have made it a place that I can call home. Finally, I would like to thank you, my readers, for joining me on my adventure. Without you, there would be no me. If you have read every entry, congrats. You have successfully endured 80 109 words (or 141 pages of single space, size 11 Calibri font typeface) of monotonous ranting and raving. If you have missed a couple, shame on you.

Now, sitting here at my desk in Uganda, I feel ready – petrified, but ready. I have a thesis to write, a season with the Dal Tigers to absolutely annihilate, and a thousand applications to fill out. The future looks bright, but more ambiguous than ever. Even still, whatever happens in these next couple of months, good or bad, will be a learning experience and that is enough for me.

I’ve always hated Sundays because anticipation and anxiety make me restless, but maybe a bit of restlessness is just what I need right now.

Over and Out.



Entry #39 – Monday August 17th, 2015 — “The Hippocratic Oath”

In her Two Cents on Poverty, my fellow Scholar, Rachel wrote something that deeply resonated with me:

“IDS students are often paralyzed by their fear of doing something wrong. Of doing ‘bad development’. But then the problem is that we end up doing nothing.”

When I first read Rachel’s take on how IDS students respond to poverty I thought she was spot on. After all, we IDS students are blasted with the “do’s” and don’ts” of development work from the day we set foot in “INTD 2001 – Introduction to Development Studies”. Well, first we are blasted with the scent of weed, David’s Tea, burlap satchels and Lulu Lemon leggings – but that goes away after all the GTAers stop attending class. Anyway, even in our first minutes as little “IDSites” we learn that most of our actions actively contribute to a number of global injustices.

We are told that things like poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are not invented by tyrants in developing countries but rather by our white, colonial ancestors. We read that everything from the clothes on our backs to the minerals in our computers and smart phones contribute to war and crimes against humanity. We later discover that the ideologies which allow us to lead happy and comfortable lives (capitalism, liberalism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, etc., etc., etc.) are the same ones that supress nearly 2 billion people every day. I think I lost my innocence on the day that I learned that IMF encouraged developing countries to divest in healthcare and education through a series of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).

But wait, there’s more! After learning about how our way of life (informed by ideology, of course) directly contributes to widespread human rights violations, war, famine, and poverty we also learn that our ability to help is severely limited. At this point in an IDS lecture on “Bad Development” some student sitting in the back of the class will inevitably go on a rant about how they “saved Africa” during their two week Me to We trip in rural Kenya:

“I don’t know what you are talking about. I spent two whole weeks building schools in rural Kenya when I was in grade 12. The poor villagers did not have a school, so we built them one. I don’t see how that is harmful, now kids can learn…. Blah, blah, blah… I’m now a vegan…. Blah, blah… yeah, so what if I go to Kings, Starbucks will probably still hire me if I graduate… blah, blah, blah… I’ll have you know that my Dad owns the second largest Maple Leafs memorabilia store West of Ajax… blah, blah, blah.”

After a few more similar outbursts, the professor usually goes on to explain the instances where help can be harmful. The professor will point out the sustainability issues that are inherent in physical infrastructure projects, the paternalistic overtones of adopting a child, the colonial undertones of voluntourism, and the harms of assuming that the West is “developed”. Rachel does a fantastic job of outlining the harms that are embedded in simple acts of altruism, so please check out her blog for more on that. What I will say is that, in the world of development, everything must be examined with a critical eye and context must be taken into account. If not, even those with the best intentions run the risk of causing more harm than good.

Anyhow, my point is that IDS is a depressing program. It can make even the most idealistic person reek of cynicism. So in that regard, Rachel is right. Many IDS students would rather do nothing at all than run the risk of causing harm.

I am no exception.

My heart breaks when I see children begging on the street. When they follow me with their hands out and pull on my clothes, every part of me wants to pull out a 50 000 schilling note (or $20.00 CAD) out of my wallet and give it to them. At least that way they would have enough money to eat for the next few weeks. However, then my IDS brain kicks in. I remember that most of (if not all) the money that these kids receive from kind strangers is stolen away from them by the adults who send them onto the street. More often than not, the kids will not see a schilling of what you give them. Food donations are a little bit better, but still create an unsustainable cycle of dependency – not to mention the neocolonial undertones that the image of a rich white person feeding a poor street child conjures up. Not only do I feel like a bad person when I walk away from somebody who I could easily “help”, I feel negligent.

Anyhow, the fact of the matter is that, on a micro level, my IDS education has made me adverse to surface level acts of philanthropy. However, such an aversion does not mean that I “do nothing”. Quite the opposite, really. Rather, I seek out ways to help that do not simultaneously harm. For instance, some of the work that I have done in Uganda will indirectly benefit hundreds, if not thousands of Ugandan farmers. These are small things: write a report, help with a proposal, look over a document, or take notes at a meeting. It would be both naïve and fallacious to assume that these actions play a large role in enhancing Ugandan food security. After all, given the short amount of time I have spent in Uganda, my actions are unlikely to constitute even a drop in the bucket. It is, on the other hand, realistic to hold that these actions have caused far less harm to far fewer people than if I were to solely rely on one-off philanthropic acts to satisfy my conscience.

So yes, as an IDS student I am paralyzed by a fear of doing “bad development”. I refuse to give money to street children because I do not want to entrench cycles of dependency, I do not take my camera in public because I do not want to perpetuate an “extractive model of development” (that and it got stolen), I do not build infrastructure in rural parts of Uganda because I am not a carpenter, I do not draw blood at an HIV clinic because I am not a certified nurse, I do not work at an orphanage because I do not know the first thing about child psychology, I do not volunteer at a school because I am not a teacher, I do not work at an animal reserve because I am not a trained zoologist,  and I refuse to sponsor a child because I think that it is paternalistic. I would much rather help with a project proposal that empowers thousands of women than give a street lady 500 schillings. I would rather I help in my own way – in a way that does not create more harm than good.

Dambisa Moyo writes an entire book on the harmful role that “help” from the West plays in “less developed” countries. Her thesis is simple: Development aid causes more harm than good on the African continent. In other words, many African countries are cyclically dependent on foreign aid which paradoxically inhibits their growth. Her solution: Africans need to engage in venture capitalism.

Moyo uses the case of an African mosquito net maker to illustrate the relative effectiveness of venture capitalism compared to the harm of foreign aid. I could appropriate her example, but that would not be much fun as most of my readers do not sleep under a mosquito net. Allow me to use a product that hits a bit closer to home, so to speak. How about shoes? Okay, here we go:

Tom is a shoe maker who lives in a small village in Western Uganda. Tom’s shoemaking shop supplies footwear for his entire village, as well as a few other surrounding communities. In addition to making shoes, Tom also repairs footwear. He buys his leather from a local farmer, his rubber from a local vendor, and pays a boda boda driver to distribute his product. People buy Tom’s shoes because they are fairly affordable to an average rural farmer. More, Tom’s shoemaking shop employs 10 mothers, each of which have nine children and take care of 10 nieces and nephews. Thus, in addition to providing footwear, the revenue from Tom’s shoes allow 190 children to eat three meals a day.

The sun is setting and a brave group of voluntourists emerge in Tom’s village. Bono is their leader. He stands in front of the 50 lionhearted white girls. Everybody (Bono included) wears shin-length khaki shorts, a white tank top with sweat stains, a rucksack, and a tight pony tail. Oh, and aviator sunglasses. Can’t forget those. Bono and his storm troopers (urrr, I mean voluntourists) have come to save the village, and they are not empty handed. They each carry with them a large bag of shoes.

Why? Well, a selfless North American shoe-making company has decided that they will donate one pair of shoes to developing countries for every pair that somebody purchases. It is a win-win-win. Wealthy people get to can go to sleep knowing that they did a good deed (and they get a pair of shoes out of the deal); the poor people get free shoes; and the North American shoe company laughs all the way to the bank.

But wait, now Tom’s village and the surrounding communities are flooded with shoes – free shoes to boot (pun intended)! People suddenly stop buying shoes from Tom (because they can get them for free) and he is forced out of business within a few months of the voluntourists’ arrival. The 10 mothers lose their jobs and their 190 dependants are forced to beg for food on the streets. Even worse, after two years everybody’s free shoes are worn out. Bono and his team of pony-tailed saviors are long gone and Tom does not have enough money to kick-start his business again.

So, thanks to the altruistic intentions of North American shoe buyers, a small village in Western Uganda is dependent on donations for shoes, an entrepreneur has been forced out of business, and 190 children have been forced into the streets. More, Tom’s leather supplier, rubber vendor, and boda boda driver lose out on his regular business. Win-win-win? Not quite.

Now, as a firm believer in a responsible and robust state structure, I cannot say that I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Moyo’s solution to foreign aid dependency; however, the premise that development aid can be harmful if not done correctly holds true.

Alright, let’s take stalk of what we know. IDS students are so paralyzed by the fear of doing harm that they often do nothing at all. Their fear is founded in the fact that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. Micro level actions, such as one-off philanthropic donations, might feel good, but they hold the potential to cause harm. While some little “IDSers” believe they are doing good, if they undertake work that ignores the context of their community and their respective skill sets, they hold the potential to cause harm. While some little shoe shoppers believe they are doing good, if they undertake shopping endeavors without considering the implications of their actions, they hold the potential to cause harm.

Moral of the story: think twice before you sponsor a child, make a commitment at We Day, or sign up with a voluntourism company. Remember that your good intentions hold the potential to cause harm. Recognition of this potential should not stop you from helping; rather, it should give you an idea of how mitigate harm.

Harmlessly Yours,


Epilogue: If you don’t find God, then He will find you (part two)

I sit on my boda and feel like a badass. A few minutes earlier me, Rachel, and Shelby decided to go for a run on one of our favorite hills. Ironically, however, we need to take a boda boda to the hill because it is located on the other side of the city. Anyway, I feel like a badass because I did not say one word in English to the boda boda driver when I was hailing him – only Luganda! Granted, I did not understand half of what he was saying, but still… badass.

We bump along the road that leads into Kampala’s City Centre. We reach the first round-a-bout and it is an absolute free for all. The boda boda driver accelerates and swerves left to avoid a taxi, he then slams on the breaks, does some weird swivel maneuver with his front tire, and then accelerates over the curbed area in the center of the round-a-bout.

While on the cubed area, we nearly hit an old lady who is screaming biblical verses at the top of her lungs. She stares at me, hisses, and then continues with her business. She must know my dirty secular secret. We continue over the curbed area, back into the round-a-bout where we swerve right to avoid a chicken and what appears to be a baby goat. After another few near-death moments, we finally emerge on the wrong side of the road, meters away from head-on traffic. I close my eyes and the next thing I know we are safely on the right (I mean left) side of the road. Well, actually by the time I open my eyes we are on a sidewalk on the left side of the road. No surface is out of bounds if you are a boda boda driver.

After another sketchy intersection – sans traffic lights or stop signs – we arrive at the bottom of a small hill. I’ve been down this road hundreds of times by now and everything appears to be normal. People walk, children play, and the odd chicken makes its way on and off the side of the road. Then I hear something. It is coming from the top of the hill, but I cannot quite make out the sound.

I wait a few more seconds.

My eyes double in circumference as the faint sound morphs into a wall of people coming over the crest of the hill. In front of the wall of people are two or three police trucks with armed guards sticking out of all ends. Additionally, there are a dozen armed police and Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) officers running in front of the crowd. The officers hold their shot guns in one hand and wave oncoming traffic to the side of the road with the other.

“F***, it’s a coup. Shit, f***, Stephen Harper, house cat, shit. This is not how I want to die. Pretty cool way to go, I guess. But still, not completely ideal.”

The crowd grows closer and I tell my boda to turn around and take a different way… this time in English. He ignores me and presses on. “Okay, Jeremy. You have a helmet on so if they knock you off the bike at least you won’t die from getting trampled.” The mob is less than 10 meters away at this point. All I see are guns, police, and more guns. The crowd is chanting something, but I cannot make out their words through my helmet.

5 meters away: “How are we possibly going to squeeze through this mass of people”, I think to myself.

3 meters away:” “Well, I made it almost 14 weeks without dying. I’m sure that’s not a high score, but better than nothing.”

1 meter away: I close my eyes.

When I open my eyes I am surrounded by a sea of people dressed in blue. “Okay, not dead, not getting trampled, probably not a coup. Looking good, Jeremy.” I can finally make out what the people are chanting, “WE ARE GOING TO CANAAN!!!!!” I pull up the visor on my helmet and I can hear them chanting louder now. People sprint by the boda in every direction. As people run by they grab by arm and say, “JESUS NEEDS YOU!!!!… “PRAISE BE TO JESUS”… “COME WITH US TO CANAAN TO PRAISE HIS HOLY NAME!”

I cannot help but let out a bit of a chuckle. I am not in the middle of a coup; rather, I am witnessing some sort of pilgrimage. Parents have children on their shoulders. Girls are singing and boys are dancing. Everybody carries a flag in their hand that says something about Canaan and “God”. People wave their flags in my face as they try to bring Jesus into my life. Granted, some of them make compelling cases, but for now I will stick to my “I believe in everything and nothing” approach to organized religion.

The crowd stretches down the road for kilometers. I stand up on the boda at one point to see just how many people we are dealing with and I lose count after 20 000. Actually, I lose count after 5, but you get the point.

My boda driver and I continue through the crowd for a bit before dipping off into a side-street. A few pilgrims find us on the side-street and start to spread the Holy Word. Lucky for me, my driver is just as interested in getting away from the pilgrimage as I am by this point so we speed off in another direction.

I think to myself as we travel down the street, “You can run from ‘God’, but you sure cannot hide”.

Entry #36 – Sunday August 9th, 2015 — “Ethical Fashion Advice”

Disclaimer: The following is a truth that I have created. It is not a set of objective facts. Do not let my truths dictate your truths.

You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you are forced to wear clothing that does not really fit your body? We’ve all been there. Those who identify as “female” sometimes wear uncomfortable shoes that force their toes into another dimension. No “male” that I have talked to enjoys the constricting feeling he gets when he does up the top button on his dress shirt. Yet, despite the discomfort we experience when we put on these clothes, many of us still wear them every single day. Why? Because we all agree that a dress with high heels or a suit with a tie are socially acceptable types of clothing. Sure they are ill-fitting and completely ignore the way our bodies are naturally shaped – but hey, most of us would rather wear clothing that does not match our body type than go against what everybody else is doing.

In my view, Uganda has been forced into clothing that does not match its body type. Before I go further, I would like to be perfectly clear about a few things. Body types do change; they constantly grow, shrink, and adapt to their environments. However, change should not be externally imposed. Just like no “female” wants to wear a dress that is 4 sizes too small, no culture wants to be forced into a way of life that doesn’t match its history. And Ugandans have been given a lot of ill-fitting clothes by people from far off lands: namely the idea of the European nation state and a Universalist, Christian ethic. These factors in concert create an incoherent, mismatched outfit that – in my subjective opinion – ultimately alienates many Ugandans from themselves, each other, and the rest of the world.

Firstly, the Westphalian nation state is an idea that should have remained with primitive European nationalists. A monolithic state structure might work for unsophisticated European cultures that take a millennium of bloodshed before they learn to get along with each other, but it does not work for the highly sophisticated and inherently complex cultures that exist throughout Africa.

Allow me to back up a smidge.

After about 1000 years of primitive tribal warfare, Europeans finally realized that they could not get along with each other and decided that something needed to be done. So, in 1648 the (almost) enlightened minds of Europe got together and figured out a way to institutionalize and oversimplify their misunderstanding for one another. Their goal: create a simple system to maintain peace among power hungry rulers. Their solution: the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648. The Treaty of Westphalia was the precursor to two concepts that inform almost every element of our day-to-day lives in the West (and everywhere around the world, for that matter).

The first concept is the “nation state”. The idea of the nation state is quite simple, perhaps too simple. A nation is a group of self-determining people. People in the same nation usually share a religion, language, culture, and way of life. A state, on the other hand, is a political structure that is characterized by its laws, territory, and political institutions.

As a side, a state should not be conflated with a government. For example, in Canada, our state structure is the Crown. Our Head of State is the Queen of England (Liz) and her representative is the Governor General. In Canada, our government consists of less than 40 Cabinet Members. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister. In our Constitutional Monarchy, the Head of Government can (and must) change after every 5 years. The Head of State cannot change. Canada’s Head of State will always be the Queen or King of England unless we decide to become a republic.

Anyway, according to the late Pierre Trudeau, a nation is a sociological reality whereas a state is a political reality. Trudeau believed that the nation and the state should remain separate realities. So do I. Unfortunately, the savage-like brains of our European ancestors disagreed with me and Trudeau. They decided that the sociological reality of a nation and the political reality of a state should be married. Consequently, all of the Europeans who belonged to a French speaking tribe were given a territory called France, if you were in an Italian tribe then you went to Italy, if you were German then you were confined to Prussia, and if you were Russian then you went to Russia. Easy peasy. Nation meet state; state meet nation.

The second concept is called “sovereignty”. The Westphilian understanding of sovereignty is quite simple, perhaps too simple. Sovereignty is the doctrine that says one state cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another state. The basic, European meaning of sovereignty is this: “You stay out of my way and I will stay out of your way”.  Kind of a primitive concept, don’t you think? In my view, sovereignty (in the European meaning of the word) does not address the root of conflict, but rather gives states an excuse to oversimplify inherently complex relationships. That is, instead of states attempting to holistically understand one another through a constant process of negotiation, they employ school-yard tactics to undermine other states: “If I can’t see you then you can’t see me!” The result is paradoxically more conflict. Classic International Relations issues like the Security Dilemma, for example, are only made worse when negotiation is replaced by non-interference – by European notions of sovereignty.

Regrettably, the primitive tribes of Europe took their savage-like ways with them when they decided to colonize Africa. The simple-minded idea of the nation state was superimposed on a complex body of African kingdoms and tribes at the Berlin Conference, 1884. In retrospect, the Berlin Conference formalized one of the most primitive, savage, simple-minded, idiotic, hateful, racist, and underdeveloped things that humans have ever undertaken: colonialism.

In 1884, a guy named Otto von Bismarck called on European tribal powers to discuss the “Africa” problem. You see, nation states were fighting over which pieces of land they could colonize so something needed to be done. The solution: divide Africa into bite-sized nation states. The European powers went on to literally draw arbitrary borders around chunks of African land – all notwithstanding previously existing tribal territory. Talk about a constricting cocktail dress!

The present day result: a place with political borders that do not reflect the complex nature of its history. In Uganda alone, entire Kingdoms with distinct sociological and political realities were forced by colonial powers to live under one state structure, administered by one government, and ruled by one set of laws. The logic at the time was that European culture was superior to African culture; therefore, the idea of a monolithic, sovereign nation state was superior to a complex web of kingdoms, tribes, clans, and villages.

However, in my view, a European-style nation state does not fit very well a polymorphic web of tribes and kingdoms. For instance, within Uganda there are no less than 5 kingdoms, and within each kingdom exist tens of tribes. Each kingdom, by all intents and purposes, contains a distinct People with a unique language, set of cultural practices, and mode of governance. Conversely, because all of these kingdoms and tribes exist in a singular political body – i.e., present day Uganda – several Peoples must adhere to the same set of laws, use the same political institutions, and speak the same language. Even worse, thanks to the arbitrary borders drawn at the Berlin Conference, a lot of these tribes are spread out over a number of African countries.

To be clear, I am not suggesting a reactionary return to a bygone pre-colonial era. That is both unrealistic and disrespectful to those who have worked to build a unified Uganda. Ugandans have struggled for years to create a national identity and simultaneously maintain a series of sociological realities. Heck, in its current form, Uganda is a great place – but in my opinion it is largely constricted by an externally imposed state structure.

In a sense, the imposition of the Westphalian nation state has presented both Canada and Uganda with a similar conundrum: how can we live together in a political reality that does not match the complex nature of our society? Both Canada and Uganda have been forced into high heeled shoes. The only difference is that the British Crown gave us Canadians far more blister cream than our Ugandan counterparts.

Next, a tension arises when a Universalist, Christian ethic is superimposed on a swath of humanity that does not have a European history… or rather should not have a European history. This tension can be boiled down to cultural relativism versus universal human rights. Cultural relativism is a doctrine which holds that (at least some) variations in cultural practice are exempt from legitimate criticism by outsiders. According to Aaron Ettinger, the idea of cultural relativism is supported by the intrinsic values of communal identity, autonomy, and self-determination. That is, we cannot reduce moral decision making to an abstract individual in some hypothetical state of nature. Sorry, Hobbes.

For instance, Muslim people fast during Ramadan. From a purely Universalist perspective, the act of fasting violates one’s human right to bodily autonomy. Even still, those who are not Muslim recognize that fasting is an important part of a Muslim’s cultural identity and thus do not criticize it as a violation of human rights.

Cultural relativism is an important component of Ugandan life. Like I said before, Uganda consists of several Peoples, all with distinct cultural practices and beliefs. In the pre-colonial period, the cultural practices in these kingdoms largely existed notwithstanding other cultures. That is not to say that these kingdoms were watertight compartments that did not constantly adapt their practices. I am simply arguing that a universal human rights ethic was (and is still) not practical due to pronounced cultural variations within and between kingdoms.

By contrast, universalism holds that human rights exist regardless of variations in culture. Under the doctrine of universalism, human rights have existed since the beginning of time and have simply been discovered by “reasonable” humans. The tradition of universalism finds its roots in a Christian ethic: everybody was created by a Christian “God” and therefore everybody must adhere to the same set of moral principles.

The Universalist, Christian ethic is deeply embedded in Western political thought. In fact the American Declaration of Independence explicitly states that human rights such as equality and liberty are self-evident and apply to everyone:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (emphasis added)

An obvious criticism of universal human rights is that it is really just another form of cultural relativism that hides under the auspices of a liberal world order. In other words, a Christian ethic is just as valid as a Zulu ethic or a Buganda ethic – the only difference is that those who adhere to the Christian ethic believe that it is the only game in town.

The harm of latter assumption materializes when universal human rights are used as a yard stick to judge the validity of Ugandan cultural practices. For instance, due to pressure from the international community, the practice of paying a bride price has been outlawed in Uganda. On the surface, bride price is a human rights violation because it commodifies women: a man gives a woman’s father gifts and in return the woman’s father allows his daughter to marry the man. In many cases, the man believes that he owns his wife once he pays the bride price and thus feels entitled to mistreat his wife.

Now, to eradicate any ambiguity, I do not endorse bride prices and do not condone the commodification of women. However, after a lengthy conversation with a close female friend, I do have an appreciation for the view that some Ugandans share with regards to bride price. My friend is a university educated Ugandan women who holds a degree in International Development Studies. She works for a prominent NGO that places emphasis on gender equity and the empowerment of women. More, her take on bride price is much more nuanced than the Universalist perspective. Instead of holding that a bride price in all of its forms is inherently degrading to women, my friend believes that the practice of a prospective husband bringing a gift to a woman’s father marks a sign of respect.

Our conversation went something like this:

I immediately snapped when my friend explained this to me. “BUT YOU ARE STILL BEING COMODIFIED! Don’t you feel like you are being bought!?” Through gritted teeth, my friend responded in the negative: “I love my culture and it makes me sick that people think they can come in and try to change it. In my Kingdom [central Uganda], if a man does not bring my father a gift, then he does not respect my family – he does not respect me. The rest of the world calls these gifts a bride price, but I call it a sign of respect.”

My response: “Okay, I get that. But I still do not understand why a commodity has to be exchanged in order for a man to marry a woman”… my friend interrupts: “and people from my culture do not understand how you can marry a woman without bringing her father a gift. We do things differently here, and people from other parts of the world need to understand that. Your culture is not superior to ours, it is just different. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in women’s empowerment, it is just that we have different definitions of empowerment. Yes, I agree that the men in the North [another kingdom] should not make their wives have 15 children because they paid a bride price, but we are not talking about them. They are a different People.”

I still do not agree with my friend, but I realize that my unwillingness to accept her arguments arises from culturally-informed ideas about gender equity and empowerment – not a self-evident code of universal human rights. In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle: human rights are, as Jack Donnelly argues, “relatively universal”. That is, there are some human rights that hold true across time and space, but the interpretations of these rights are culturally informed and thus carry with them a high degree of variation.

The debate around bride price (and countless other areas of human rights) becomes more complicated when you add colonialism to the mix. The reality is that the Christian ethic that was brought to tribes in East Africa runs in tension to a pre-colonial ethic of cultural relativism. It is my belief that the tensions between these ethical codes alienate some Ugandans from themselves. For instance, a Ugandan might go church and be told that marriage means a holy union between one male and one female. The next day he might go to his village and be told that polygamy has been part of his culture for centuries. If a Ugandan gets sick, the West tells her to take a pill while her witch doctor tells her to fast.

I could go on, but for the sake of time I will just say that (once again, in MY view) these competing ethics create tension, incoherence, and alienation. Granted, a number of Ugandans have synthesized Christianity with their pre-colonial religious practices. And I do not take issue with this. All cultures are in constant flux. All cultures adapt, negotiate, and renegotiate according to historical pressures. My issue lies in the Universalist assumption that one culture must die at the expense of the other; that an externally imposed Christian ethic is the sole dictator of cultural evolution in Uganda; that Uganda is forced to wear clothes that do not fit Her natural body type.

The European-style nation state does not fit Uganda’s curves. Yes, Uganda looks beautiful in her tight, one piece cocktail dress, but you can tell she feels constricted. Uganda would look far more stunning in a long, flowing dress that gives the natural shape of her body room to adapt to her environment. A Universalist ethic might be appropriate footwear in other parts of the world; however, in Uganda it is not practical. Uganda needs a pair of shoes that allow her to stand tall and maintain circulation in her toes. She needs clothing that is versatile, adaptable, and most importantly, not imported from other parts of the world. Uganda needs an outfit that she can proudly call her own.

Well, by now you are probably either asleep or sufficiently offended so I will stop for today.

Fashionably Yours,


Entry #35 – Thursday August 6th, 2015 — “Taboo Topics”


The United Nations is a club. Albeit, not a very exclusive club but a club nonetheless. And like with any club, if you want to be a UN member state then you have to go through a bit of an initiation. After pledging for a number of weeks, aspiring member state delegations traditionally have to streak around the Security Council chambers, do a body shot out of the Secretary General’s belly button in front of the General Assembly, shotgun 1 beer local to each existing member state, and recite the acronym of every UN agency while being held upside-down by the Russian delegation… oh yeah, and you have to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but that tradition is much less important than other activities. Unfortunately, Thanks to the Women’s Hockey and Men’s Rugby scandals at Dal, the UN has been forced to scale down their initiation festivities in recent years. Now, if a country wants in, all they have to do is sign the UDHR and a few other unimportant documents. Easy as pie!

Because so many member states ignore the provisions set out in the UDHR, the UN has decided that they need to take stock of the human rights situations in their member states. As a result, every four or five years, the UN kindly asks their members to submit a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to the General Assembly. The General Assembly then passes the UPRs off to the UN Human Rights Council for further analysis.

2 problems with the UPR process:

  1. Member states do not give a rat’s ass, which means that regular reports few and far between
  2. When member states do get around to submitting a report, they tend to lie about the human rights situation on the ground in their respective countries

1 solution:

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in member states are allowed to submit a shadow report to let the General Assembly know what is really going on.

Rachel and I have been tasked with drafting a CSO shadow report on the Right to Food in Uganda. Shit is getting real. More details to come later.

According to the enlightened and socially progressive “journalists” at Cosmopolitan Magazine, there are three things that you should never talk about on a first date: (1) politics, (2) religion, and (3) sexual orientation. Thankfully, this entry marks your 35th date with “Life as a Canadian on the Equator”, so the gloves are coming off! In this entry, I am going to break free from the shackles of popular culture and ignore the advice of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Pretty radical stuff, I know.

  • Politics

The political culture in Uganda is an ideal that Canadians ought to strive towards. When I say “political culture” I am not referring to the laws and policies of the Ugandan Government. Further, I am not talking about the National Resistance Movement (or NRM – Uganda’s dominant political party), Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan Cabinet Ministers, corruption, or infamous presidents – Idi Amin, for example. Indeed, these factors might influence a country’s political culture, but they certainly do not define it. In my view, a political culture is principally defined by the strength of a community. So what does a strong community look like?

Strong communities are comprised of people (not individuals) who live public lives. And a public life is one that is characterized by a shared existence. People can share their lives with each other in a number of ways: engaging in informed discussion or outright debate, preparing communal meals, playing sports after work, spending Saturday afternoons at a public park (or  attend an “Umuganda” if you live in Rwanda), attending public school, or volunteering at a local NGO. All of these activities typify a shared existence because they allow people to insert themselves into their community – to live a public life.

Based on my observations, Ugandans live public lives; Canadians do not. Yes, most of us Canadians have reluctantly attended a ‘block party’, played Timbits soccer at the local community centre for a couple of cold springs, and spent an afternoon at a Habitat for Humanity build. More often than not, however, these activities are the exception to the rule. A block party might occur once a year if you have friendly enough neighbours to organize it. Few parents ever really get involved in community sports – the rest just sit on the sidelines, chew sunflower seeds and count down the seconds until they can return to the solace of their own home. And while some attend Habitat for Humanity builds, many prefer to lazily oppose the projects in hopes of keeping their community a monolithic heaven for white, middle class, 3rd generation European immigrants.

Quite simply, when shared activities are done disingenuously, their outputs do not create a public community. By extension, when people live private lives, they add to the broader degradation of Canadian political culture. Why? Because when people do not wholeheartedly insert themselves into their communities, they lose the ability to understand the social, political, and historical contexts in which they operate.

Without a grasp on these fundamental factors that shape human interaction, people who opt for private lives do not exist as humans, but rather as individuals. And civil society is not made up of individuals. In a civil society an individual is a non-entity because she cannot root her humanity in anything but herself. Instead, civil society it is made of people who deliberate with one another; of people who share their opinions by knocking on their neighbour’s door rather than poking them on facebook; of people who accept each other regardless of one’s “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability; of people who are not afraid to disagree with each other.

In absence of people who live public lives, a political culture cannot flourish. It is my belief that Canadian political culture will not reach its full potential until individuals can become people. Until people embrace a shared existence in a strong community.

I am not saying that Uganda is a paragon of all of the things that I describe above. Even still, many Ugandans do live public lives. For instance, I was talking to a colleague from another NGO about the ubiquity of noise in Kampala.

As a side, even as I type this, people in a nearby church are yelling “HALLELUIAH!” at the top of their lungs, a baby is screaming bloody murder, and loud hip-hop music is radiating from a truck on the street. The truck actually has its speakers turned outwards so everybody can listen along.

I was met with a perplexed look after I expressed my frustrations to my colleague. He said, “Jeremy, that is not noise you are hearing. That is people celebrating life!” I replied, “So the people who ring my doorbell on Sunday morning at 5:30 and try to sell me fruit are not attempting to give me high blood pressure?” The colleague laughed and said “That mama just wants to know who you are. You should offer her some tea next time”.

Ugandans’ willingness to share their lives with each other is the key to the deliberative nature of their political culture. The children who play in front of my apartment building every day (and torture Rex) are far more likely to care about a nearby road reconstruction project than a Canadian child who plays “Call of Duty” in his basement until 4:00am on a school night. An adolescent who walks to and from school with her friends every day has a higher steak in keeping that route safe than a Canadian teen who bums a ride with her parents. An adult who harvests produce out of a community garden is much more invested in the food security of his neighbours than a Canadian who avoids an old high school friend at a grocery store.

Granted, political culture is operationalized by voting, running for office, and holding informed opinions on policy-related issues. However, a political culture is built on the foundation of a public life. That foundation is laid by those who play outside, walk to public school, and participate in community projects.

  • Religion

I grew up in a fairly secular family. We never went to a religious institution to warship a Judaeo-Christian “God” on the weekend. I did not pray before every meal or adhere to any diets on religious holidays. I was never told by my parents that I had to believe in a divine entity, live my life according to a religious scripture, or shun those who did not share my beliefs. My family gave me space to observe, weigh the evidence, and decide for myself what version of spirituality (if any) aligned with my values.

All of this is not to say that I was deprived of tradition as a youngster. In the holiday season, I would join my extended family for several meals. We would sing traditional songs, read traditional stories, and eat traditional food.  Yes, all of these traditions arose out of a religion – but that was never really important to me. What mattered was that my family was together and that there was good food.

The secular practices that I observed in my home were mirrored in the public schools I attended. From k-12 I attended school with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc, etc. Friendships were largely forged notwithstanding religious beliefs and people accepted each other for who they were rather than what they believed. The latter, of course, was not always the case, but in broad strokes, freedom of and from religion was the accepted practice.

Things are a little bit different here in Uganda. Many people certainly have freedom of religion; however, freedom from religion is a different case. To be clear, I am not ascribing any value judgements to the religious culture in Uganda. I am simply stating my observations. Anyhow, religion is just about as ubiquitous as noise in Kampala. At 5:30 in the morning I wake up to a call to prayer from a local mosque. Every meeting I attend is opened and closed with a prayer (almost exclusively to a Christian “God”). Taxis and boda bodas usually have a religious slogan painted on their windshields: “Jesus will save ME”, “In God’s Hands”, “I know Him”… you get the point. Even the names of businesses reflect the highly religious nature of Ugandan society: “God is Good Beauty Salon”, “The Light of the Lord Mechanics”, “Jesus is Able Restaurant”.

Many people attend church more than once a week, hum church music when they are not in a place of worship, and set their cellphone ringtones to the latest Christian rock hit.

People are usually confused or burst out in laughter when I respond to the classic conversation opener: “so are you Protestant or Catholic?” My response: “I believe in nothing and everything. But to be honest, religion is not a very big part of my life”. I am often met with: “how can you be a Muslim and a Christian at the same time? Didn’t your parents make you go to church?” After a few more minutes of back and forth, me and my new friend agree to disagree and move on to more pressing matters.

Granted, freedom from religion in Uganda is not as prominent as it is in Canada. But hey, there is nothing wrong with having conviction! At least people here are not afraid to take pride in their beliefs. The question of whether I agree with these beliefs is irrelevant. In sum, Uganda’s hyper-religious tendencies certainly have their advantages and pitfalls. All the same, religion makes Uganda what it is and I would not dare try to undermine such a fundamental component of my friend’s and co-worker’s lives.

  • Sexual Orientation

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that:

“Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

In recent years, our courts have read in “sexual orientation” as an analogous ground on which Canadians cannot be discriminated. The process of “reading in” a new ground is quite simple. All of the grounds that the Crown cannot discriminate against are things that people cannot or should not have to change. For instance, it would be an undue infringement for the Crown to make you change your sex or age. Similarly, sexual orientation is a lot like the other grounds enumerated above because somebody’s sexual orientation cannot and should not be influenced by the Crown. Therefore, in Canada, the Crown cannot give royal assent to any legislation that discriminates against somebody on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Things are a little bit different here in Uganda. The current government believes that a state has the right to dictate the sexual orientation of its citizens. The Ugandan government and many of its MPs who sit in parliament believe that homosexuality should not exist; that sexual orientation is something that one can and should change if it does not align with a narrow set of societal values. The following statement was submitted by Uganda to the UN Human Rights Commission in 2011. It does a far better job of illustrating why Ugandan law makers feel the way they do than I ever could:

“Article 31(2a) of the Constitution prohibits marriage between persons of the same sex. Sections 145 and 146 of the Penal Code prohibit same sex relations. While the Constitution, under Chapter Four, guarantees rights of persons, it also imposes duties and obligations on them to ensure that in the enjoyment of such rights, they do not infringe on the rights of others. Those who practice and / or support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues continue to push for their recognition as a right. There is information of covert recruitment, of especially our children and youth, into such practices which we consider to be detrimental to the moral fabric of our society. In Uganda, there is an overwhelming consensus that such practices are untenable; and thus culturally and legally unacceptable. It is our considered opinion that such practices remain a matter of private choice. There should be no promotion of those practices.”

Whether or not these values truly reflect the will of Ugandans is not something that I am willing to discuss online. Here is what I will say: Canada can learn a lot from Ugandan political culture and Uganda can learn a lot from s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

That said, Ugandan society has its quirks. What Canadians would classify as overt public displays of affection, Ugandans do not bat an eyelash at. For example, every day at exactly 5:20 I pass a long line of male security guards who are walking home from work. These security guards are quite intimidating from afar: tall, uniformed, and armed with large rifles. A closer inspection reveals something that many Westerns would find, well… different. Without fail, each security guard is holding one of his friend’s hands. As a get closer I notice that the two male security guard’s interlocked fingers swing back and forth, back and forth. If these men were not dressed in uniforms and carrying large rifles, one from the West might think that they were in a homosexual relationship. Why? Because in Canada when you hold somebody’s hand in public, you are typically in a romantic relationship with them.

In Uganda, however, things like handholding (or any close physical contact for that matter) are not associated with romantic relationships. Rather, public displays of physical affection are used to convey friendship. Men will shake your hand and then hold it for an entire conversation; if you walk beside your friend then you put your arm around him; if you are having an important discussion, then you place your hand on your friends arm or knee. Interestingly enough, a Ugandan in a romantic relationship will seldom touch their significant other in public. It is even considered indecent for a bride and groom to kiss at their own wedding!

Once again, I place no value judgements on these interesting quirks. Nevertheless, as a Westerner, I find it fascinating that a society can simultaneously condemn homosexuality and condone public displays of same-sex physical affection. Not to say that the two are mutually exclusive!!!!! Just saying… quirky.

Well, we have made it through our 35th date! Any suggestions on where to go for number 36?

Your tolerant friend,


Entry #34 – Tuesday August 4th, 2015 — “A Stack of Paper”

The world is full of patterns. In Winnipeg, summer gives way to winter in late August, only to return the following July. In Halifax, first year students from the GTA pile into residence buildings in the fall, party for 7 months of the academic year, study for two weeks, return to their step dad’s cottage in “Northern Ontario” for the summer, and then decide that they are better off studying IT at Brock. In Kampala the day begins with roosters crowing, dogs barking, and car horns honking. The sun rises at exactly 6:30am and sets at exactly 6:30pm. In the rainy season, clouds roll in at around 2:00pm and dissipate shortly before 6:00pm. In the dry season… well god help you if you are anywhere rural in the dry season.

Most of these patterns are prima facie static. Prevailing weather patterns tend to, well… prevail. That is, unless the Governor General invites the Conservatives to form a government in October. In that case, a dark cloud will undoubtedly encircle Canada for the next 4-5 years. University students from the GTA have, and will continue to, annoy everybody that they come in contact with who is not from the GTA. And the dry season on the equator will always make you sweat.

However, despite its static appearance, the world is also a pretty dynamic place. Less than a generation ago, most of the world was not able to communicate. Today, thanks to social media, I can know the shape, composition, and smell of Miley Cyrus’s poop before it has left her bowels! Even as I sat in a run-down shop in the middle of a slum on Sunday, I was the only person who was not on his smart phone, browsing facebook and twitter. The world is an interesting place, indeed.

The neighbourhood kids found a baby kitten the other day. I have named him Rex. Rex is Latin for King. Like the ‘progressives’ at University of King’s College, Rex does not subscribe to the gender binary, shave any part of “its” body, and refuses to drink out of a cup like a normal kitten. Rex prefers mason jars. Anyhow, I am a little bit worried that Rex is trapped in a pattern of abuse. The other day I watched Rex run away from the neighbourhood kids for more than a half hour – only to be picked up by the little hair on its little back and placed on an unsuspecting kid’s face. Rex gently nuzzled against my shoe for a brief moment before getting scooped up again by the kids this morning. I fear that Rex will never break free from his current pattern of abuse.

Recently, I have noticed the emergence of another pattern. Allow me to explain:

I have come to the realization that I work in 4 year cycles – quadrennials, if you will. My first quadrennial started 7 years ago year ago with my entrance into high school. The beginning of my second quadrennial came 4 years later when I set foot on campus at Dal. In the first year of each quadrennial I shoot out into a new environment with endless possibilities, not unlike an infant trading in the womb for the slightly more spacious world. Although I’m not covered in placenta… usually. The first year is always a bit of a blur: new places, new faces, and new experiences. It is a sensory overload in every meaning of the word. In the first year, I often struggle to find my role in my new environment. Am I a musician, an athlete, a nerd, neither, or all three? Who am I and how do I fit into this strange and exiting world? Needless to say, the beginning of a quadrennial can be a bit daunting – but novel and exhilarating nonetheless.

My second year is characterized by dissonance. I have acclimatized to my new environment and feel comfortable with my surroundings; however, the shine has worn off and reality has set in: “I am going to be here for a while”. The second year of a quad is usually where I get stuck in a rut. I might be familiar with my surroundings, but have yet to discover where I really fit. By now, I have usually ruled out what I am not: a druggie, a drop-out, a party animal, a slacker. Even still, I do not know what version of myself I ought to pursue.

Third year is usually pretty great. The awkwardness of the first half of the quad is ancient history and I feel established in my community. People know my name and I am surrounded with those whom I can relate to. Even better, by the time the third year rolls around, I have usually discovered my role. Coincidently, in the past two quads my role has been that of a community builder. For instance, most of my grade 11 year in high school was spent organizing initiatives through a Social Justice Committee. In the third year of my undergrad I volunteered for political parties, sat on a student union committee and took up leadership roles in student societies.

The final year of a quadrennial is always a trip. By now, I am firmly entrenched in my roles and responsibilities and, consequently, have bitten off far more than I can chew. In grade 12 that meant serving as the Chair of the Social Justice Committee, volunteering, ramping up my swimming, and putting in extra hours in the classroom. This year, it means serving on the executive of two student societies (President on one and VP Finance on the other), doing enough extra circulars to kill a small horse (like debate club… the ladies love it), training full time in the pool, taking on a full course load, and so, so much more. I am not complaining about having all of these responsibilities. In fact, I would not have it any other way.

Usually, an exit strategy and “the next steps” dominate my thoughts during year four of a quad. Free time is spent filling out scholarship applications, researching schools, requesting transcript after transcript after transcript, and mapping out where my next quad will be spent. In my last year of high school, the latter activity was pretty straight forward: look at a map of Canada, draw a large “X” in red marker over the province of Manitoba, and play “eeny meeny miny moe” until my finger landed on a school with a swim team.

This year I will be faced with a similar game of “eeny meeny miny moe”… with one difference: WAY higher stakes and WAY more competition. In my limited, young, and naïve view, I believe that the law schools, grad schools, and jobs I apply for will likely have a large bearing on how my next few quadrennials play out. And yes, Dad, I know that 30 years down the road it will not really matter, but right now it feels like it does.

I would be lying if I said that I am not a bit stressed out heading into the final year of this quadrennial. Unlike four years ago, this time around a lot of factors lie in my ability to convince a selection committee that I am worthy of winning their scholarship, attending their school, or becoming an employee at their workplace. In most cases, transcripts and standardized test results will speak just as loudly as carefully crafted personal statements, reference letters and essays. More, everybody that I am up against will have just as impressive transcripts, test results, and references. Small fish, meet Ocean.

Here is the thing: I do not know if my desire to pursue my chosen endeavors can be adequately captured in a stack of papers. I do not know if anybody’s desires can be for that matter. Sure, a professional school might see that I have an inherent desire to build communities by glancing at my CV – but they cannot experience the euphoria that washes over me when I see people united around a common cause; the sheer joy that I get when I am in a position of leadership. A selection committee can look at my transcript and see good grades, but they cannot see the countless hours I spend struggling to perfect every word of an essay or the Saturday nights I spend locked in my room while my friends are at the bar. A scholarship panel might read a reference letter that says I am a dedicated student athlete, but they cannot hear the sounds of encouragement that come from my coach and teammates every day; they cannot listen to my thoughts during a swim practice, as I test myself on concepts I learned earlier in the day.

A selection committee certainly cannot know the feeling of pride I get when a swimmer that I coach executes a new technique or goes a best time in a race; the feeling of excitement that I get when I attend just about every political science class that I can get my hands on; or how I am overcome with a desire to build a better Canada after I attend a lecture on constitutional law. They probably will not wonder if I know almost every section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms off by heart… I will never get a girlfriend, will I?

Sure, I can tell these people that I am passionate about what I do, but so can everybody else. The reality is that, in a stack of application essays, transcripts and reference letters everybody is passionate and deserving. Heck, even on the off chance that I am 1 in a million (which I am certainly not), then there are still 7 000 people just like me walking around as I write this. 7 000 people who are just as qualified as me to get into a good school or win a good scholarship – and that is not even considering the millions of others who are more qualified and more deserving.

So where does that leave me?

Well, if I have learned one thing from the last three years of this quadrennial, it is that trying is never a waste of time. So that is what I will do: try. I will apply for everything, including the scholarships that are likely beyond my reach, the schools that are certainly beyond my price range (student loans, here we come!), and the jobs that lie beyond Canadian borders. At least that way I will not be sitting at my computer a year from now wondering, “what if?” Hey, worst case scenario I get rejected everywhere and end up working at Starbucks with every other person that has done a liberal arts degree since the 90s.

Well, Rex is getting bullied again so I better go protect him… err, I mean her… SHIT I mean “it”.

Passionately Yours,

Jeremy… all 7 000 of us

p.s. Good luck to the Dal Tigers competing at Canadian Swimming Championships this week. You guys are going to rock it.

Entry #29 – Sunday July 19th, 2015 — “Ubuntu”

Ubuntu is an African philosophy that emerged from the Bantu Peoples thousands of years ago. In its simplest form, Ubuntu means that we all belong to each other. The philosophy additionally finds its roots in the Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” or “A person is a person because of other persons”. Fun fact: Ubuntu is entrenched in South Africa’s constitution. Although Ubuntu is fairly easy for one to conceptualize or put in a constitution, in my view it is something that is difficult to fully understand until one immerses her or himself in a culture that places a high degree of value on communitarian notions of humanity.

I came across Ubuntu in December, 2014 while reading Adrienne Clarkson’s Massey Lectures on citizenship and belonging. I did not give the philosophy too much thought until I found out that I was moving to Uganda for the summer in late April. When I arrived here in May, it was almost all I could think about. Since my arrival I have been struggling to illustrate the concept of Ubuntu in a blog entry – especially seeing as I only have a couple thousand words before my reader invariably closes her or his computer or falls asleep. I know it sounds really douchie, but Ubuntu can be felt a lot easier than it can be explained. In any case, with the help of Clarkson and my recent experience at a traditional cultural event, I will do my best to lay out what Ubuntu means to me.

According to Clarkson, Ubuntu means that:

 “Each of us is a human being because of other human beings: we depend of each other for our well-being. It then follows that is we depend on others to be human, we are bonded with them. It is only though others that we gain our ability to attain our full humanity.”

Therefore, when we do not root our selfhood in others, we cease to be human.

My understanding of Ubuntu is that the self still exists; however, the individual does not. By way of illustration, as a bound body of “stuff” (i.e., flesh, bones, and maybe a brain) I have a measure of biological agency. I can type a blog entry with my fingers, move to Uganda for a few months with my legs, or read a book with my eyes. Yes, these actions flow from electrical pulses that run through MY brain, but they are rooted in an interconnected web of selfhood that is informed by the collective. In that vein, these actions do not make me human unless they are rooted in something larger than me.

The physical act of moving to Uganda, for instance, carries no significance if nobody is there when I arrive; if nobody is in Canada when I return; and if nobody is impacted by my journey. Without others, the individual act of travel becomes meaningless. By extension, the self does not exist because, in absence of fellow humans, there is nothing for one to root her or his selfhood in.

Clarkson goes onto emphasize that no set religion or school of philosophy can lay claim to Ubuntu. Some of you, for instance, might believe that Ubuntu shares a lot in common with the Christian doctrine of love (or “agape”): “God” created all of us equally; therefore, we must love each other equally. However, as Clarkson notes, this Christian ethic runs contrary to Ubuntu because it sees the individual reaching out to other individuals “as opposed to the identification of the self-coexisting among other selves”.

Further, Ubuntu should not be conflated with sameness. It should rather be seen as shared selfhood that is rooted in diversity and acceptance. After all, if we were all the same then Ubuntu could not exist because we could only root our selfhood in our own ideas. The latter is not civil society, but rather the tyranny of the majority. As Clarkson writes: “We cannot create a civil society by including only the people we like and with whom we share similar interests and goals. That is called friendship. And a society, a country is more than friendship.” Therefore, Ubuntu goes beyond personal relationships and love; it is about understanding that humanity is rooted in the community and that the community is a place of diversity.

The concept that selfhood cannot be rooted in individualism is a little bit jarring for most of us from the West – at the very least, it is quite difficult to fully conceptualize. Believe it or not, most of our discomfort with communitarian thought comes from… drumroll please… Western political philosophy! Yayyyy!

Early liberal philosophers like Hobbes (okay, we was a proto-liberal), Locke, Hume, and Smith heavily emphasized the individual – and rightfully so. In their time, the idea of an autonomous individual (or even sovereign individual) was radical, but pretty justifiable. All of these guys lived under absolute monarchs and did not enjoy too many rights or freedoms as a result. All of their tax money went to the Crown – never to be seen again – and in one way or another Crown owned almost all property. Given the fact that these philosophers were ruled by monarchs, you can see why guys like Locke thought that the ownership of private property was the height of human civilization.

Fortunately, we do not live under absolute monarchs anymore; just Stephen Harper… although these days he is not too far off. Unfortunately, the idea of individual sovereignty has outlived its original enlightenment purpose: empowerment. And while liberal individualism started off as a reaction to tyranny, it has largely continued as the very source of widespread oppression – the source of a lost Ubuntu.

Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, for example, had a strong grasp of Ubuntu before European settlement. Despite centuries of systemic marginalization and racism, many Aboriginals still do. Anybody ever hear of a potlatch? Probably not, the last one happened nearly 100 years ago*. Regrettably, liberal and neoliberal ideologies have gone onto drown out the communal institutions and shared sets of values that allowed Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to thrive for thousands of years prior to European occupation. These are the same values that remain a necessary condition for a “civil” society to exist today.

*I received a comment from a reader who has attended a potlatch; however, she is far younger than 100 years old. I should be more precise and say that they were outlawed in the 1920s, but continued to exist in certain areas. Thanks, Reader! 

I first felt inklings of Ubuntu when I arrived in Uganda some weeks ago. Here, boys from different faiths and creeds will often greet one other as “magadawange” or “brother”. More, it is acceptable to call just about any lady, “mama”. For instance, I buy mangos (for 500 schillings a pop!) and other produce from a “mama” who has a fruit stand near the pool I train out of. When I approach her, instead of “hello” or no greeting at all, I say “odotya, mama!” She usually looks up with a smile and quietly says “bulungi, ssebo”. I can only imagine the weird stares that I would get if I called a random lady “mama” in Canada.

Other small pockets of Ubuntu materialize during day to day life. The constant hum of people shouting, laughing, and playing is one of many indicators that Ugandans place a high degree of emphasis on living shared lives. However, like I said before, Ubuntu is something that is very difficult to explain in words; it is understood through participation rather than sheer explanation. To my luck, yesterday I felt Ubuntu loud and clear… I will try to explain.

A few weeks back my Scholars and I were invited to a co-worker’s Kwanjula (or introduction). A Kwanjula is a significant part of Ugandan marriages that dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Its purpose is, quite literally, to introduce the groom to the bride’s family. In the old days, the prospective groom would go to the bride’s village and give her family a number of gifts. The Kwanjula was often the first time that the groom met the bride’s family, and sometimes even the bride herself.

Today, Kwanjula ceremonies have become a bit more commercialized (sometimes luxury items like cars or houses are given to the bride’s family) but still carry a high degree of significance. In fact, after a Kwanjula the bride and groom are legally married in the eyes of the Ugandan government. This is despite the fact that a Kwanjula is almost always followed by a traditional wedding in a church at a later date. More, as was the case yesterday, in modern times the bride and groom usually know each other quite well long before the Kwanjula.

Yesterday was a long day, but one that I will remember for the rest of my life. My Scholars and I hopped in our boss’s car at around 9:00am, ready to put on our traditional Ugandan dress and see what these Kwanjula things were all about. I asked my boss: “So where in Kampala is the introduction”. My boss replied, “It is 200km away from Kampala in the village”. Rachel, Shelby and I immediately exchanged a look of “oh shit”. 200km in Canada might only take a couple of hours to drive, but here in Uganda it can take an entire day if traffic is bad. The situation was worsened by the fact that me and Shelby naively neglected to bring our iPods and headphones.

We arrived in the village four hours later. Traffic was pretty light and we got lucky. After we got into our traditional dresses, we joined the groom’s party and made our way to the tented area where the Kwanjula was set to take place. Rachel does a fantastic job of describing the intricacies of our experiences at the Kwanjula, so I strongly recommend you check out her blog here. Because I am a sadist, I will not give you an interesting play-by-play of the ceremony. Rather, I will reflect on it in light of Ubuntu. No wonder my readership has been falling.

Most of the Kwanjula was literally just that, an introduction. The entire bride’s family was marched out, group by group, to be introduced to the groom and his family. My Scholars and I were considered to be the groom’s family because of the close relationship he shares with our bosses. In fact, my role in the introduction was to serve as a “brother” to the groom. There were some 30 or 40 brothers.

As Ubuntu would have it, the bride was not introduced to the groom or his family until her entire family had been marched out. Why? Because the bride meant nothing until she was put in the context of her extended family. After all, it was her family that raised her into the person she was yesterday. All of her characteristics, including her values, work ethic, and personality, were all a direct consequence of her family and surrounding community. In a sense, the groom was not in love with the bride as an individual, but rather with the collective that shaped her selfhood.

Further, when the bride and groom were officially introduced to each other’s families, their entire lineage was introduced along with them. The master of ceremonies first listed the couples respective parents, then brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grand parents, and great-great-grand parents. If anybody in the lineage was dead, then the MC would indicate where they were buried. The bride and groom were only significant in the eyes of the community when their humanity was rooted in those that lived before them. Ubuntu.

The collective nature of the event became more apparent as the day continued. With each passing hour, more and more people from the village surrounded the tented area where the Kwanjula took place. By the end of the ceremony, without exaggeration, the entire village was watching the event. Children stood on each other’s shoulders, parents stood on railings, and cows even mooed louder than usual. The feeling was inexplicable. Everybody wanted to see the Kwanjula because everybody had a vested interest in the day. The circle of the community was expanding along with its collective conscience and that alone warranted everyone’s presence. It was Ubuntu.

Shocked, I turned to my boss and asked her if the latter was a regular occurrence. She looked at me perplexed and answered, “But of course! Everybody must see the Kwanjula.” At this point the groom had just presented the bride’s brother with a chicken, which signified the couple’s legal union in the eyes of the Ugandan church. As the brother walked away, Rachel turned to me and said, “The chicken is secure. I repeat, the chicken is secure”. I turned back to her and said, “No chicken, no wife!” Well, at least we think we are funny…

The most prominent example of Ubuntu occurred during dinner after the ceremony. The groom was gracious enough to invite me and my Scholars to eat dinner with him and a few other guests in a private room. During dinner I had a fascinating chat with one of the groom’s “brothers”. The chat mostly revolved around the antiquated patriarchal structures that are embedded in Kwanjula ceremonies, but that is another LONG story for another day. During our conversation, the brother said something quite interesting to me. He thanked me for coming and participating in such a significant cultural event. He said that, “when you do not participate you do not exist”. In other words, my participation in his community on that day was a necessary condition for my existence.

He went on to say that many muzungus come to Africa and observe without participating. They focus on their individual experiences without taking the time to become a part of the community that surrounds them. According to this particular brother, people that observe others without inserting themselves into their communities are not human, but rather individuals. And individuals are a non-entity in a community because they do not experience reality in the context of their environment.

It would be foolish to say that I do not fall into the latter category from time to time. That said, I always feel worse when I opt to observe as an individual rather than participate as a human. For instance, a swim practice is always far more enjoyable when I have teammates by my side; a movie or play is no fun if I cannot spend the evening with my friends; reading a book becomes much more engaging when I can discuss it with a few other. All of the above actions can be done individually, but become far more enjoyable when they are shared with others. Why? Because we become humans when we share lives with other people. In other words, we are Ubuntu.

Literally “Yours”,