by Katherine Gilks, Projects Coordinator

Prior to the start of the judging at the Saskatoon Regional Heritage Fair this past spring, the students were reminded to “compete with compassion”. That might sound like an oxymoron, but the phrase embodies doing one’s best, trying one’s hardest, and having respect for one’s fellow competitors.

“Competing with compassion” came from a book by Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. When an athlete (or team) has a “bad day at the office” and does not perform as well as expected, everyone talks about it, whether it is just until the next game or whether it is for the next several years. Not winning can be soul-crushing and can end their career. But while all athletes are trying their hardest to win, they know that they all cannot win, even if they may all be deserving of it. They need to have respect for each other and for each other’s efforts.

As far as I could tell, the Heritage Fair students did indeed compete with compassion. They presented their projects to each other, refrained from unjustly or unnecessarily criticising their competitors, and lent each other support. They were disappointed when they did not win, but they applauded those who did, even if they were not from the same school. It was clear that they respected each other, as well as themselves.

Unfortunately, compassion and respect are marginalised in our general political discourse. Instead, citizens are encouraged to “pick a team” and shout slogans, much like in sports. While Canadians enjoy friendly rivalries, they can usually recognise that there is a limit to how far their rivalry can go. For example, no matter how strong of a Saskatchewan Roughrider fan one might be, one probably does not insist that their co-worker deserves to be fired for supporting another team, or for eschewing support for the CFL altogether.

We are now about halfway through the campaign to elect the 43rd Parliament of Canada. Prior to the campaign officially starting in mid-September, Canadians were flooded with advertising campaigns, polls, and news articles. Some of these were informative, but the majority were not. They were disrespectful – not just of those they ridiculed, but of those they were purporting to support, as well as the general public. Canadians were faced with a campaign that was determined to tell us who not to vote for.

Imagine if the Riders’ advertising campaigns were entirely focused on how bad the other teams smelled or how horrible they were for beating Saskatchewan in a fair game! Fans would complain that they were being disrespected. Casual interest in the Riders would wane.

Overtly negative ads do much more damage to Canada’s democratic heritage by turning away interest in voting. In a democracy, people need to be engaged in politics. Individuals need to be able to discuss issues. The majority of voters are thus turned off by having to “pick a team” from all of the teams that seem the same. We would rather talk about anything other than politics.

But unlike sports, politics control our lives. While this year’s Grey Cup winner will be next year’s trivia fact, this year’s Parliament will set the course of our country for the next four years. Therefore, having one’s “team” win an election is not simply about having bragging rights.

There was never a time when respect and compassion were paramount in politics. Politicians of the past hurled all kinds of insults at their colleagues and rivals. Political cartooning has been around for at least 150 years. Historical election ads can be downright sickening to today’s sensibilities. Political satire is ancient. However, like athletes who all play the same game, politicians respected each other for the job that they did.  

Nonetheless, respect and compassion are necessary, especially in the current era when information is shared readily and instantly. Every single candidate, no matter what party, is a human being. Ideally, they also care about the future of this country and want to serve the Canadian public. They may have vastly different concepts of what a good future for Canada is, but they are worthy of respect nonetheless.

Competing with compassion also means listening to each other and getting past our individuals egos. What are the issues at stake in this election? Forget the personal flaws of each party leader – what does each party stand for? What issues are most important to us as voters? Which issues are we willing to overlook, and which ones are we not?

Being compassionate and respectful does not mean always agreeing with each other, but it means not slinging mud. It means forgiving (not forgetting) genuine mistakes and looking at the concrete actions of individuals and parties. It means not putting blind trust and faith in someone because they are “not the other guy”. It means not always putting oneself first.

Every single Canadian citizen has the right to vote, no matter our biology or our ethnicity or our social status. This means that politicians are accountable to all of us. Citizens have power, but with power is the responsibility to choose wisely. Our future should not be based simply on how much we hate someone.