Stephen Lewis (on Nelson Mandela)

“He turned the other cheek.”

Stephen Lewis was a leftist Canadian politician, and remains among the most articulate and passionate champions of social justice in the world. He was Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, and a Special Envoy from that body for the cause of AIDS in Africa. He was also a friend of Mandela and especially his wife, Graca Machel. Lewis could unleash a tidal wave of scrupulously chosen words, but in a CBC interview on hearing of Mandela’s death, his most powerful were these five. They enshrine the courage, the wisdom, the Christian forebearance to seek only justice, only forgiveness, only the future good of his country, when revenge might have seemed a necessity.

Even Stephen?

Had there been any doubt in my mind about the most important issues facing the world, it would have been dispelled yesterday morning by what I heard on CBC Radio. The Current is more than just a saucy, growling intro from The Voice, and before 9 am I had heard from two of the greatest voices of advocacy and awareness that Canada, that anyplace, has ever had: David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis. When these two get together, what do they talk about?

(Allow me to pause and hereby notify the Nobel people. For all his eloquent education and pleading and all that he has given to those suffering through the Great Pandemic in Africa, the former U.N. Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa has my nomination for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Lewis should be the second Canadian¹ to join a club that includes Mandela, Teresa, King, Schweitzer and Matthai. The Peace Prize has been awarded since 1901, and will be until, well, until we have world peace, I suppose, but even then there will be milestones and heroes who bring ingenuity, progress and life to the world once war has been politically restrained or banished.)

These particular warriors of peace didn’t have long on the air, but as it so often is these days – and this is a good thing – climate change was the subject. David Suzuki, of course, was far ahead of the public curve on climate change, and has been a passionate defender of the environment for decades. His current campaign has him flying around the country (and, be assured, buying carbon offsets for all that plane travel) asking Canadians what they’d do if they were Prime Minister. Something I hadn’t known was that the first climate conference in 1988 – instigated by the Mulroney government and gathering scientists and leaders from around the world – was chaired by Stephen Lewis. This was several years before the famous Kyoto meeting and the Protocol that resulted from it, and Suzuki and Lewis were blunt and indignant: If we had done what we said we were going to do then, we wouldn’t be in the bloody mess we are today!

It was a superb (if too-brief) conversation with two mighty men, and a trip to The Current‘s website might allow you to play the interview. (It didn’t work for me.) One thing startled me, though: after all the wrenching speeches, tears (his and his audiences’), anguish and exhausting commitment he gave to the cause of African AIDS (and the resultant societal breakdown), I heard Lewis refer to climate change as the single biggest threat the world faces. (Especially to the already-ravaged African continent, not to mention all the low-lying islands and seashores that could be submerged by rising sea levels. Bangladesh.) Imagine the humility and detachment implicit in choosing this environmental threat over the ferocious pandemic he has been fighting from up-close, tongue and tooth and claw…

And there’s more: as big as these two issues are in their human toll – and you may be as worried about war, terrorism, bird flu, poverty, human rights, ethnic struggles – they are still symptoms of one fundamental problem facing the human race. It was elaborated in the 19th century by Bahá’u’lláh: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” I’ve been thinking about this astounding statement for many years, and I am all the more convinced that this is the heart of the matter. The argument is simple but the implications are gigantic: DISUNITY is the underlying disease of humanity, and beneath all the greatest global problems lies our difficulty in recognizing the essential oneness of the human race.

It’s an awfully big idea to get my head around on a Tuesday afternoon, but I offer it for your consideration all the same.

¹ Buy yourself a milkshake if you knew that Lester B. Pearson, before he was our Prime Minister, won the Nobel for his peacemaking efforts in the Suez Crisis.

Passion on the Radio

If you missed Stephen Lewis on CBC Radio 1’s Sounds Like Canada today – and most Canadians do – then you missed something spectacular, Wagnerian, Olympian. That is, if global indifference to massive suffering is your idea of greatness. (Yet it is “great”, in the sense of “of enormous scale or importance”, in the sense that World War I was the “Great War” until its sequel arrived. Not so much, I admit, in the low-impact vernacular “Great party, eh?” sense. End of Great Paranthetical Remark.) If you’re interested in more, I wrote “We Should All Be Listening” for Wednesday journals. So far, no takers.

We Should All Be Listening to Lewis

Yesterday morning, I certainly had other work to do, but I got waylaid by the words of Stephen Lewis. Again. My wonky CD player refused to play, so I flipped to radio instead. Before I could find a music station, there was Stephen Lewis, Canada’s closest thing to public service sainthood. (And, not just by the way, there was the Mighty Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio 1. ‘Bout time, but I’m grateful anyway. Hello again, Shelagh!)

Sounds Like Canada was the program, and if only the public voice of this country was consistently as eloquent, as impassioned, as ferociously good as Stephen Lewis’s is, we would be the conscience of the world. We’d be changing it. If you don’t know who he is, you should. He was a New Democratic Party politician, one of Ontario’s youngest elected Members of Provincial Parliament, and the party’s leader for a time. He is someone that thoughtful Canadians have loved to listen to, even when they were on the opposite side of the political fence. He is well beyond politics now. After all, can you name a party that is in favour of disease and death?

Lewis has more recently been Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, a key guy at UNICEF, and for the last few years, he has put his entire being on the line as Special Envoy to the U.N.’s Secretary-General for AIDS in Africa. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, it must sometimes seem to him, but what a voice!

Here is what he said about another of our Canadian heroes of noble frustration, General Roméo Dallaire. Lewis was reviewing Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil, his witness to the Rwandan slaughter. Lewis wrote, “Here was a man who screamed into the void. No one listened, no one cared, no one heard. But he never stopped screaming. He valued every human life. He wept for every human loss. He never gave up.” It takes one to know one, I’d say.

Stephen Lewis speaks in gorgeous sentences, even paragraphs, so his is a peculiarly artful scream about another African holocaust, where more than half the world’s HIV-positive people live and where hundreds die every day. “I have spent the last four years watching people die,” Lewis says. “Die unnecessarily,” he adds for what must be the ten thousandth time. And people are listening, people and governments do care, but the pace of response is maddeningly slow.

He reels at the lack of urgency in rolling out effective medications that are available right now. He rages that promised resources from Western governments are filtering through at only half the pledged rate. He rails at his own employers, the United Nations, for not quickly taking advantage of the international trust and the talent at their disposal. And it is a source of rueful pain to Stephen Lewis that his own country, the one that challenged the world’s wealthy nations to commit 0.7 percent of their Gross Domestic Product to international development, is nowhere near this development goal. Our great statesman Lester Pearson first suggested this target in 1969, but only a few northern European nations actually meet it. “The United States thumbs its nose at it”, Lewis says, and Canada doesn’t do much better in this commitment to global justice. And he can’t understand why.

The entire social fabric of a continent is unravelling. Whole generations of teachers and doctors, mothers and fathers are disappearing. “In Malawi, which has, what, 10 or 12 million people, there are two pediatricians left!” Lewis tells of visiting a hospital there. On the night shift, caring for 60-70 patients at the end of their struggle with AIDS – “patients who would be in intensive care in Canada” – was ONE nurse. One. He is obsessed and exhausted by the overwhelming flood of numbers like this and stories like this, stories of people that he has visited and comforted and profoundly mourned. I’ve heard him speak in person three times in the past two years. Each time, I have wept desperately and wondered, How long can he keep doing this?

I wept again yesterday morning. Shelagh Rogers, I think, managed not to, but she had the same question. Lewis says he wants to stay at it until he sees the tide turning on this pandemic, which will kill tens of millions if it doesn’t turn soon. He looks for that point where the masses of infected and affected people – poignantly, the burden is disproportionately carried by women and by innumerable orphans – can have some hope that help is indeed coming. He thinks that could be in the next 18 months or so, if the lumbering apparatus of international action could be moved to act. Disasters on a far smaller scale – the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes in the southern United States, and the Pakistan earthquake – prove that the world can be a compassionate and responsive place. The pandemic of AIDS, though, unfolds more slowly, with fewer dramatic images, and for many reasons seems to require more planning, and a more humane and more concentrated kind of imagination.

And Mr. Lewis’s plans? His disposition, and his political upbringing, tell him to “keep on fighting!” Well, last night [October 18] in Vancouver, he gave the first of his five Massey Lectures. Winnipeg, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto will follow. He titles the lectures “Race Against Time”, and it is his current survey of the situation faced especially by sub-Saharan Africa in dealing with the AIDS pandemic. “Don’t ever think the African nations can’t do it themselves, if they are given the help they need,” he says. And will keep on saying. Over and over again. In that erudite, cracking, not-quite-despairing voice that is one of Canada’s great gifts to the world.

The Massey Lectures will be on CBC Radio’s Ideas program in the week of November 7-11. You can find out more about AIDS in Africa, and how you can help, at .