The most dangerous place to be in World War 1 was no-man’s land. No-man’s land was a treacherous place, filled with mud, mines, rotting bodies and limbs, craters, pits, and poison. Nobody wanted to go there, because if you did, you were likely to die. Canadian war painters and photographers and novelists have left us with a myriad of depictions of the devastation—they’re still haunting. It was a place without life between two lines bristling with machine-gun nests and artillery batteries.
This, sadly, was the picture that came to my mind as I read John McKay’s excellent article this week on the state of parliament after the defeat of Motion C-312. McKay writes,
Usually MPs are quite chatty and boisterous after votes as they head off to various receptions, meetings, etc.; not so on Wednesday night. It was as if someone had died. In fact, I said to a colleague it was like exiting a funeral. Conversation was muted. The shrillness that characterized the debate was silenced.
Maybe someone or something did die, and MPs inadvertently reflected it in their demeanor.
McKay’s article describes a picture of a political no-man’s land. The space where civilization once dwelt—parliament—has been left pocked and poisoned from the rhetoric, and the complete unwillingness to discuss the deepest of human questions. There aren’t many such wastelands in our public dialogue, but there are a few, and the question of when life begins and when it is worthy of legal protection is one such wasteland in our country. And if the words of those who responded to Rona Ambrose’s decision to vote in favour of the motion are any indication, it’s clear that there is a particularly deadly poison in the air. As McKay notes,
This week another motion was tabled in Parliament on the practice of sex-selection. If the debate runs true to form each side will vilify the other, MPs will duck and head for the exits, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire or worse still, killed politically by friendly fire from their own partisans.
In World War 1, it was those who acted bravest in such poisoned fields—often to rescue those who were wounded and dying—whom received the highest of Canadian honours: the Victoria Cross.
Citizens are not able to hand out medals, but we should stand up and encourage those politicians who refuse to stay in their trenches and who brave the middle ground despite enemy and friendly fire. John McKay and Rona Ambrose are just two of them, but they’re an indication that even fields which are poisoned as Passchendaele might, someday, return to life.